Should you find yourself in a forward-facing seat on a WiFi equipped train in Europe, congratulations, you have won the proverbial travel lottery. My golden ticket came as I left Lisbon on a three-hour journey north to one of Europe’s oldest cities – idyllic, storybook Porto. Porto captivates me for many reasons, but one specific example comes in the form of a very messy sandwich. Little known outside of Portugal, yet beloved by those who have been lucky enough to tangle with it, this mouthwatering, knife-and-fork-required titan is known as Francesinha. Translation: “Little Frenchie” or simply, “Frenchie.” Although origins are inconclusive it is generally accepted that, sometime in the 1960s, a French immigrant attempted to put a Portuguese spin on the croque-monsieur. His offering was clearly well received. Today, it is associated with, and mostly exclusive to, the city of Porto. However, variations are beginning to appear elsewhere in Portugal as its legend, and tourism, expands.
Since the Francesinha is not bound by a standard recipe, debates of authenticity are futile. When you stumble upon a good one, you’ll know. Its creation begins with two to three slices of a lighter (white) bread. A variety of ingredients are piled on including roasted meat, steak slices, wet-cured ham, fresh sausage, and linguiça – a smoke cured pork sausage seasoned with garlic and paprika. Before completion it’s smothered in melted cheese, doused in a secret hot, thick, tomato and beer sauce, and served with a side of french fries. For extra gluttony, order it especial to receive a fried egg on top. And, of course, pair with a glass of Portuguese wine or Super Bock beer to wash it all down.
I’m told the residents of Porto generally reserve this guilty pleasure for once-a-week meals with friends, typically before attending a FC Porto football match at Estadio Do Dragao. Their small waistlines seem to confirm this, but the absence of available seating inside Santiago, one of the city’s most sought after purveyors, indicates otherwise. At 10:45pm I’m happy to secure a stool where, for the next forty-minutes, my legs will be smashed under a tile counter built far too low to accommodate someone my height. Super Bock is drained and refilled while my server and I attempt to speak in a combination of broken English and Portuguese, about the upcoming World Cup.
When the sandwich arrives, I’m in heaven. This is the kind of comfort food I could, but shouldn’t, get used to. Its gluttonous nature flies in the face of seemingly every European food stereotype. I begin to dig in. Awhile later, with my napkin in shambles, I set down the knife and fork victorious yet fatigued. I can barely feel my legs beyond their touchpoint beneath the counter and a familiar slowness begins to overcome me, but I know I have to push through. After this beer I will pay for my sins. My apartment is two-miles away and an uncomfortable yet euphoric walk through Porto’s dark streets awaits me.