Don’t be confused by the name of this sandwich. Despite francesinha meaning ‘little French lady’, there’s nothing small or dainty about this dish. Made of multiple meats, smothered in cheese and drowned in a rich, boozy sauce, it looks like something which might pop up on your Facebook feed in a gut-busting viral video – but this Portuguese delicacy is as traditional as it comes.
Culture Trip spoke to José Menezes Pinto, owner of Bufete Fase, one of the most venerated francesinha shops in Portugal. He’s been making this famous sandwich for 25 years and let us in on some of its secrets.
History and tradition
As the name suggests, this sandwich was inspired by French cuisine, specifically the croque monsieur, a toasted cheese and ham sandwich. After Portugal’s dictatorship fell in the 1970s, those who had fled António Salazar’s regime began returning to their homeland, many from nearby France. One returnee decided to reinvent the French delicacy to satisfy Portuguese palates, and the francesinha was born.
Pinto has his own twist to add to the tale: ‘It’s said that a Portuguese immigrant coming from France brought the francesinha as a snack. As it was spicy, it alluded to the French ladies of the time, who were more attractive and sexy [than other women]. And that’s how it became known as francesinha (“little French lady”).’
Where to find them
The sandwich originated in Porto and can be found all over the north of Portugal. ‘It’s Porto’s signature dish,’ Pinto says.
While it’s less widespread in the south of the country, it can still be found there; in Lisbon, a variation of it is sold with a green herb sauce, for example. You can also buy bottles of francesinha sauce in supermarkets across the country, if the craving strikes at home. As there’s no standardised recipe for the snack, each chef gives it their own personal touch, such as a unique combination of meats, so personal preference can dictate where you choose to order a francesinha.
How it’s made
This hefty sandwich includes enough meat to satisfy a T-rex. Pinto’s daughter explains how the francesinha is ‘made of several layers. It includes the bread, cheese, ham, roasted pork, fresh frankfurt, sausage, beef and bread again. [Then more] cheese and sausage on top, and then it’s covered in sauce, which has a unique secret recipe in every restaurant. A francesinha with no sauce is not a francesinha.’
Pinto says: ‘My daughter and I keep the secret of the sauce. To be more or less adequate the sauce needs six hours preparation. It has beer, whisky and brandy – and some secrets that shouldn’t be revealed.’ The spiciness of the sauce varies from location to location.
How to eat them
Approach with caution. This isn’t the kind of sandwich you can eat on the bus. The francesinha is hot, messy and prone to falling apart. It’s worth slicing it in half so you can see the pattern of layers within it, but after that anything goes. It’s often served with chips, which you should dip in the sauce.
‘This sandwich is my livelihood, and I hope the business stays in the family for many years,’ Pinto says. ‘The recipe has been handed down to us. Now we will carry it on.’
This article was originally written by Nina Santos, and has been updated.