In Portugal, the alheira chorizo is cherished as a national gastronomic wonder. “This is our traditional food,” Miguel Fonseca, manager of the trendy Ecork Hotel in Evora, told me as he pointed to one of the sausages, mixed into a frittata and displayed at the center of a festive smorgasbord of Portuguese tapas. Fonseca keeps the alheira on the menu at the hotel’s restaurant, where black pigs roam nearby among vineyards and cork trees, awaiting slaughter for the chef’s pork-based specialties.
But the alheira is not pork-based. In fact, it’s a sausage with a specifically Jewish history that dates back more than 500 years, when Portugal’s Jews cooked it up as a way to avoid torture, imprisonment, and slaughter during the Inquisition—or so the legend goes. Whether the story is entirely accurate or somewhat exaggerated, bringing this history to light is part of the country’s increasing awareness of its Jewish past and, perhaps, a nascent Jewish revival.
Muslim Moors ruled Portugal from the eighth to 12th centuries, allowing Jews to co-exist and prosper alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors. When Spain instituted the Inquisition in 1478, many Spanish Jews fled to neighboring Portugal and joined older Jewish communities there. Soon, Jews made up around 25 percent of Portugal’s total population. They were astronomers, scientists, and rabbis who were critical to advancing Portuguese exploration during its legendary Age of Discovery.
But it wasn’t long before the Jews, who had been publicly blamed for droughts, famines, and the plague, were given their death sentence in Portugal. In 1536, three months after angry mobs burned Jews at the stake, Portugal established its own Inquisition, with the stated aim of battling “heresy.” Jews were forced to formally vow allegiance to the church, but they practiced their faith in secret. They became known as the “New Christians,” conversos, or crypto-Jews.
These “New Christians,” Fonseca, a Portuguese Christian, explained, “were actually Jews, who made things to look like Christians, though everybody knew.”
Many Jews fled to the mountainous regions of the north, and in the city of Mirandela, the story goes, the alheira was born. It derives its name from alho, garlic in Portuguese, and follows the northern region’s sausage recipes, incorporating bread crumbs, garlic, and mountain herbs. It looked like the pork sausage commonly seen hanging in front of homes before the advent of the refrigerator and was also hung outside Jewish homes. But instead of pork, the alheira used game: chicken, duck, quail, or any other kosher meat.
Unlike many other traditions, the Jewish diet was creatively preserved during the Inquisition. In his book, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews, the Sephardic scholar David Martin Gitlitz wrote that “as with other areas of crypto-Jewish practice that were defined more by not-doing that by doing, for many conversos, particularly in the later years, avoidance of pork became a touchstone of their Jewish identity.” Not only proscribed by the halacha, pork was also long viewed as emblematic of unclean Christian habits, and superstitions among Jews rumored that people who ate pork would turn into pigs; or that pigs were men who had been cursed by God. Gitlitz told me that some of the Catholic leaders of the Inquisition had Jewish ancestry themselves, and used their own knowledge of the faith to issue official documents that detailed certain clues—like the abstention from pork, or the apparent observance of Shabbat—to identify and persecute conversos.
Hugo Vaz, a Jewish researcher at the Kadoorie-Mekor Haim synagogue in the northern city of Porto, says that research has revealed extraordinary resilience in Portuguese Jewish history. “The king thought that by forcing them to convert, we would have no more Jews,” said Vaz, “though of course he was wrong.”
There’s only one problem with the story about the roots of the alheira: It may not be exactly true. Gitlitz told me that the Portuguese government’s concerted effort to spotlight the country’s Jewish past has exaggerated the uniquely Jewish character of relics like the alheira, which evidence shows to have been a Muslim and more generally widespread culinary tradition. “All these towns where the government has identified Jewish quarters, the restaurants that have sprung up doing allegedly Jewish dishes, all that support from national and local governments has created a kind of staged cultural renaissance that has strong economic underpinnings aimed to bring in Jewish tourists,” he said. “Portugal’s talk about the alheira as a Jewish food is important in the ways it wants to characterize its past.”
The Jewish-heritage revival has affected Portuguese citizens like Paolo Conceição, a local tour guide with a group known as Cultural Experience, who said that he, like many citizens, has begun to look at his own family tree. Strolling through the tight alleys of the medieval city of Evora, he says that his ultra-Christian last name—which translates to “conception” in Portuguese—indicates that his forefathers were likely crypto-Jews. He speaks with pride about the prestige that literate Jews commanded in the Portuguese kingdom.
“There was always a Jew under the king, the second-most-important person in Portugal, valued because all Jewish men were literate at a time when most Christians could not read or write,” Conceição boasted.
But the paucity of family documents means that Portuguese Jewish history remains largely an enigma.
Paolo Scheffer, the only authorized Jewish tour guide in Portugal, has traveled throughout the country seeking self-identifying Jews and says that it may never be possible to verify the claims of crypto-Jewish descendants. He’s found such Jews to be “stuck in a 500-year-old spiritual bear-traps that they can’t get outside of.” They attend church while maintaining their crypto-Jewish rituals: lighting Shabbat candles in their basement on Friday night, or having yearly picnics of slow-cooked lamb in tomato-pepper sauce during Passover. In rural areas, they are largely poor and disenfranchised, and without access to the internet or other resources, will likely never be able to formally record their personal family histories.
But he is hopeful that a Jewish revival is on the horizon, not because of official government efforts but because of average Portuguese citizens, who he says are “genuinely, within their hearts, excited about connecting with this history and discovering what they’ve lost.”
While Portuguese Jewish history illustrates the community’s perseverance, it also shows the legacy of centuries of trauma during the Inquisition: “Centuries ago, Jews kept their religion a secret to save their lives,” said Vaz. “More than three centuries later, we see that Jews still keep it a secret. Not because they are afraid, but because it feels like part of the religion.”
That silence may be changing. In recent years, Jewish tourism has spiked, and new Jewish citizens have arrived. Since 2014, under a new Jewish law of return, Portugal has issued passports to more than 700 Sephardic Jews, many from Turkey and France, who are attracted by EU membership and Portugal’s atmosphere of tolerance. In support of that Jewish influx, the government has poured millions of euros into Jewish-heritage projects, and, intentionally or not, kicked off a process of historical reckoning that would have been considered taboo as recently as a generation ago.
According to the national census, more than 700 Portuguese identify as “affiliated” Jews who belong to a synagogue. There are also another 5,000 Portuguese who say that they “self-identify” as Jews, meaning that they have no synagogue affiliation and, in some cases, may have nothing beyond a general inkling and a practice of potentially Jewish “family traditions” to confirm that their ancestors were Jewish.
The Kadoorie-Mekor Haim synagogue—adorned with Moroccan-style arches, heavy redwood interior, and more than 20,000 hand-painted azulejo ceramic tiles—makes Porto one of only three active Jewish communities in Portugal today. As the historic center of Portuguese Jewish history, the city is experiencing a modest revival with a kosher store, three kosher restaurants, and a kosher hotel, some of which were opened by Jews who relocated to Portugal under the law of return. The synagogue, which five years ago had only 30 members today boasts more than 250. Vaz hosts tens of thousands of schoolchildren each year with the aims of clarifying what actually happened during the Inquisition, which is played down in school curricula.
Vaz says that nationally beloved cultural artifacts like the alheira chorizo allow the country to tap into its convoluted past in an accessible way. Even if its Jewish history has been overstated, the alheira is one of many remaining testaments to Jewish survival during Inquisition. There are mezuzahs that were redesigned to include a cross, or the dreidels, known in Portuguese as rapas, that are still played with during the Christmas season. “This Jewish history is Portuguese history,” said Vaz, “and it’s something that the generations to come cannot forget.”
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Shira Rubin is a journalist in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter @shira_rubin.