Few foods in Portugal inspire such heated debate as the Francesinha, essentially a toastie pimped to epic proportions and smothered in a rich, meaty sauce. The name, which roughly translates as "Little Frenchie," might suggest a dainty and delicate dish, but this sandwich is as hearty and hardcore as it gets.
The Francesinha's origins are somewhat hazy, but it's said to be a distant relative of the croque monsieur that Portuguese migrants to France fell in love with during the 1950s and 60s, and adapted to their own meaty tastes on returning to Porto, a coastal town to the north of the country.
There are variations on the theme, but the classic Francesinha involves thick slabs of rough-cut bread, between which lie slices of steak, ham, and at least two types of sausage. The whole lot is draped in slices of mild cheese, topped with a fried egg, smothered in sauce, and served with a giant plate of chips.
I knew that mere mention of the mighty sandwich can cause grown adults to come to blows (everybody claims to know the "best" one in town) but what I hadn't realised was that by asking Lisbon's beloved Francesinha makers to share their secrets with me for this article, I was asking them to commit the culinary equivalent of breaking the Magician's Code.
While some Portuguese will tell you that it's impossible to find a good Francesinha outside of Porto, there are plenty of Lisboetas who beg to differ. Many speak in hushed, reverent tones about Dom Tacho, a simple spot famed for its faithful renderings of classic Portuguese snacks. But my cheery request to come along and witness their preparation of the Francesinha met with an apologetic refusal. We're sorry, came the response, but the preparation of our Francesinha has some special key steps and sauce ingredients—a lot of people want to know the secret of the sauce, so I hope you understand our need for secrecy.
Bemused, I send out a couple more requests to other Lisbon Francesinha makers of note, only to be met with similar polite but firm rebuffs.
With my attempts at pre-approval falling flat, I decided to rely on the element of surprise and make my way, unannounced, to Tanite—a traditional restaurant in the Alcântara region of the city, whose Francesinhas are the stuff of local legend. This part of town is currently mid-gentrification: beards, skinny jeans, and gin cocktails are found in abundance along the riverfront, while the backstreets are still lined with old-school tile-walled restaurants such as this one.
I pick my way over a building site to get here, dodging the diggers, and pot-holes, and I'm disappointed to see the red fechado (closed) sign hanging in the door as I get close. But all is not lost. I see a man leaning against the open door in a proprietary fashion, and explain my dilemma.
I've come here to ingest a mid-afternoon carb and protein bomb, damn it, please don't make me leave without one, I think. Not to worry, the man tells me, the cafe next door is under the same ownership, serves the same Francesinhas, and—crucially—is open. He shows me in. It's empty, so I pick a prime spot next to a cigarette machine and begin drilling the moustached figure behind the bar about the best Francesinha.
He talks me through the options—there are "lighter" versions made with turkey breast, or with just one type of meat, but I'm here for the full-on steak-sausage-ham-egg feast.
It's not yet past the yardarm but at one Euro, a glass of wine is the cheapest thing on the drinks menu. It's literally cheaper than water. What's a girl to do? When the drink arrives, it has that very slight effervescence that is a hallmark of vinho a pressao, or draught wine. Cheap and genuinely cheerful, this is a mainstay of many an unpretentious Portuguese restaurant.
When the meaty main event arrives, I start quizzing the two men about the sauce. Is that a note of Piri-Piri? It's got meat stock in it, right?
The owner shrugs. "I don't know," he says. "The chef doesn't tell me."
I look to the chap behind the bar.
"I don't know either and if I did, I couldn't tell you," he says. "The secret to a good Francesinha is the sauce. We couldn't give the secrets away."
Whatever's in this one, it's good. While some Francesinha sauces can be watery with a suspiciously stock cube-y flavour, this one is rich with a hint of spice and a gravy-like consistency. When I take a couple of photos of the restaurant, the two men beat a hasty retreat. I ask whether I can take their names for the article.
"Just put the name of the restaurant," they say. It seems the first rule of Francesinha Club is that you don't talk about Francesinha Club.
Make no mistake, this sandwich is not for wimps. At the halfway point, I admit defeat. It's for the best. In the interests of fair comparison, I'm planning to sample the wares of another Francesinha hotspot later, at a restaurant in the touristic heartland of Lisbon that boldly claims to offer the best Francesinha in the city.
A few hours and a hilly walk around the city later, I call for reinforcements—I can't make it through another plate of cheese and meat alone (indeed, even the most ardent of Portuguese Francesinha fans tend to limit themselves to one a month, in the interests of avoiding coronary meltdown).
My dining buddy and I head to Leitaria Anunciada, a pretty corner cafe decked out in traditional blue and white Azulejo tiles, where couples and families are eating outdoors on this unseasonably warm February evening. There's only one type of Francesinha on the menu here—the full works—and it's duly despatched. This one is an entirely different animal to the first: the sauce is thick and unmistakably meaty, although still with that mildly picante kick. There's no egg on top, but the sausages, ham, steak, and cheese are present and correct, as is the thick, semi-melted cheese that cloaks the bread.
My dinner date—a local—attacks the Francesinha with gusto. It's not as good as the ones in Porto, he says, but it's a passable imitation.
It's perhaps even heartier than the first one I tried, though between the two of us, we can't clean the plate.
As the waiter comes to clear the table, my companion attempts to nonchalantly enquire about the ingredients of the sauce. The waiter shoots him a you-know-better-than-to-ask-that look.
"It's a secret," he says, before disappearing back inside the restaurant.