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Notable Sandwiches #68: Francesinha e Francesinha Poveira
This "Little French Miss" can't be wrong
Welcome back to Notable Sandwiches, a weekly feature in which Talia and I nibble our way through the bonkers document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches, in alphabetical order. This week: a not especially delicate Portuguese delicacy: the Francesinha.
My second book is due in two weeks, and I’ve found — to my creeping horror — that there’s a certain feeling in approaching the finish line of a second book where you are trying to prove rather more to the world than that you can simply write a book. That you can write an even better one. The sensation is sort of like this: you’re walking along a city street and all of a sudden a dark alley looms between two hitherto non-sinister-seeming buildings. And out of that dark alley all of your insecurities, which have been gathering strength in all the time you’ve been beavering away at the manuscript, come out in force, and surround you… Being insecurities, and thus not precisely corporeal, they mostly manage a lot of nasty whispering, certain to stop you mid-stride: You’re not a real writer… you’re a fake and a fraud… you’re not an expert, how dare you pretend to be an expert… this book is lousy and half-finished and everyone can see it… you’re not a scholar…. You should have gone back to school… you’re not a real journalist… everyone can see that the more frantic you get the more polysyllabic you are, I’ll twist your neck until you say “avuncular,” you gormless sesquipedalian… And like any good net the more you flail the tighter it draws around you …
At which point, to get your head screwed back on, still vibrating with terror, you decide to write about a sandwich. Just for a little while.
The francesinha is a Portuguese creation — so Portuguese in fact that it’s from the city of Porto — and it’s, more or less, a croque-monsieur drenched in beer sauce.
In fact, it’s just more, not more or less. Here are some descriptions from handy English-language articles on the sandwich: “a gut buster,” says the Guardian; “overstuffed,” says Tasting Table; “turbo,” says Bon Appetit, and “mega,” says Saveur. It is, in fact, a croque-monsieur on steroids, served — as Helen Rosner put it deliciously in said Saveur article — with a “cacophony of meats” in “boot-sized slabs of bread.” Everybody who’s come in contact with a francesinha more or less agrees that it is a serious sandwich, the kind to comfort you on winter nights, and/or induce meat sweats even on the coolest evening. Which is why the name is sort of funny. In a direct nod to its French origins — or perhaps a cheeky biting of the thumb — the name translates from Portuguese as “Little French Miss.” (There is also a less-messy, fast food version, the francesinha poveira, or “Poor Little French Miss.”)
Unlike so many of the sandwiches we’ve covered, whose origins are lost to the mists of time or at least to the kind of frenetic culinary mythmaking that naturally appeals to gullible tourists, the genesis of the francesinha is refreshingly straightforward. One Daniel David da Silva, a Portuguese immigrant living in France, was persuaded to return home to Porto and help run a restaurant by the name of A Regalaira (The Gift Box). Loosely inspired by the croque-monsieur, the French staple of ham and bread covered in runny melted cheese, and — according to the Regalaira’s current owner — by his avid love of French women, da Silva concocted a version of the croque-monsieur that is not only cross-dressed, but imbued with every kind of strongly-spiced Portuguese cured meat you can throw at it, doused in a piquant tomato-and-beer sauce to boot.
Apparently Daniel David da Silva had found French women to be better-dressed and generally spicier than the Portuguese kind, and decided to memorialize the difference in delicious reddish slop, a legacy undreamed of by gods and heroes. It was 1953 when he invented the francesinha, and soon it escaped Regalaira and ran across town with its bready petticoats up, and found a home on plates across the country, lying down coquettishly for the attentions of fork and knife. The one thing all the sandwich guides agree on is that this particular French Miss is not the kind of thing you can eat with your fingers, although da Silva, legendary ladies man that he was, might not agree.
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The croque-monsieur is not precisely a delicate sandwich, but it’s easy enough to polish off with a hand to spare, and unless fresh-made, it can be appallingly dry. The same cannot be said of its Portuguese descendant; the francesinha is chock-full of the kinds of meat that would gang up on a delicate French ham and make it weep for its porcine mother — to wit spicy linguica sausage, steak, assorted cured meats, and a coating of melted cheese so thick a quarter could sink in and never be seen again.
They say — or the French writer Hillaire Belloc once said — that Portugal was made by the sea, a daughter of the Atlantic; they say Portuguese is a delicate tongue, like the language of birds; its greatest writer and one of my favorites, the bespectacled mystic Fernando Pessoa, writes in his Odes that he loves, most of all, those fugitive roses that must die on the same day they are born. It’s a good thing none of them were eating a francesinha at the time, or all those quotes would have died in one happy mouthful.
Fully assembled, the whole thing looks almost threatening — as Gastro Obscura puts it, “a gooey, heaped mound in a pool of slightly spicy sauce” — and food writers generally agree that a single sandwich is more than enough for one person, or even two. The sausages line up like incisors and leer at you from that bloody puddle of sauce. It’s like a challenge on a plate, one you’d better sink your teeth into quick, and wash down with a few bottles of famous Portuguese wine before it decides to mug your intestines.
That’s the thing about women, even metaphorical women, even sandwiches named after foreign women. You have to watch yourself, or you might find yourself in love. Or at least feeling funny in the general area of the stomach, and that’s more or less the same thing, a lot of the time.
To give Pessoa the last word — even though he was all his life rather pathologically unassuming; even though in his books he wrote under the assumed identity of a postman; even though he writes with the timidity of someone confiding their dreams, and only later do you realize how beautiful his words are, and how they’ve seared you somewhere deep inside with a quiet cold fire — the final stanza of his Odes can apply just as well to a person or a sandwich. It is also a tonic to the nervous writer, the one currently typing these words, so rigid with terror her back is almost straight, despite her pronounced tendency to hunch forward as if the world is looming over her shoulder and critiquing each word. Pessoa probably wouldn’t have approved of being quoted in this context, but who knows? Certainly it applies if the sandwich in question is robust enough, which by all accounts describes the Little French Miss:
To be great, be whole: nothing that's you
Should you exaggerate or exclude.
In each thing, be all. Give all you are
In the least you ever do.
The whole moon, because it rides so high,
Is reflected in each pool.