“Are you going to eat a little French girl?” my new friend Zeto asked me as we wandered around the streets of Porto half drunk on fortified wine. “I’m sorry,” I replied. “I could have sworn you just asked me if I was going to eat a little French girl,” I replied. “Yes,” he said, not a hint of laughter in his voice. “It’s the dish of Porto: the franceshina.”
The franceshina – which literally translates to “Frenchie” or the more depraved sounding “little French girl” – is technically considered a sandwich, but that’s only for lack of a better term. Sure there’s plenty of meat and cheese between bread, but by that definition you could call a calzone or a chili dog a sandwich. The franceshina is whole other beast, one you would never dare slaying with your hands.
In Portugal’s second city, to choose your favorite franceshina spot is a territorial declaration, much like choosing your favorite soccer team. Everyone makes this (literal) mess of meat and cheese slightly differently, with a variety of fillings and a secret sauce, but there are a few similarities in nearly all versions, and an average franceshina looks something like this: ham, steak and linguiça (Portuguese sausage) stuffed between thick cut bread. In addition, it might contain any number of additional fillings from from roast pork to bacon to cheese. And we’re just getting started.
If this list of gut-busting ingredients didn’t have you concerned for your waistline and arteries, the rest probably will – the ‘sandwich’ contains layers more of cheese, and is finished off with a rich tomato-based sauce that may include anything from chilies to cognac to beer to even more meat. Serious purveyors spend hours preparing their sauce and protect their exact recipes (if not the ingredients) like Jamie Lanister protecting the crown.
Finally, the entire thing is encased in a layer of molten cheese and topped off with anything from extra linguiça to a sunny side up egg. This would be a heroic undertaking on its own, even if you don’t consider the one apparent rule when it comes to eating a Franceshina: “You must take it with a beer and chips (fries),” Zeto explained.
Maybe it’s because of its mammoth caloric count, or perhaps because nobody outside of northern Portugal ever got their hands on that secret sauce, but for the most part, the little French girl hasn’t really made her way outside Porto and the surrounding region. Good luck finding one at a Portuguese restaurant in America, let alone Lisbon.
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Francesinha (€9) – a #Porto specialty! I was out walking around Porto for over 13 hours yesterday 🏃🏻♀️but no amount of walking can burn off the monstrosity of a Francesinha… a beef patty, sausage and ham is sandwiched between two thick toasts which are then dunked in spicy tomato sauce and smothered in cheese 😱 They usually come with fries too 😰 It was a deliciously dirty meal but I think having it once (in a lifetime) was enough 😂
If you could find one in America, however, this hulking pile of meat and cheese would surely be something reserved for drunk college students looking for a 3 am snack to soak up the booze; in Porto it’s as much of a humble lunch dish as anything else.
The franceshina was once considered off-limits for women, because of its decadent nature, and when I sat down on an empty stomach at Bufete Fase – one of Porto’s most revered franceshina spots – right when it opened at noon, the restaurant immediately filled up with men. Though women these days no doubt devour this behemoth of a meal, there was not a single female at the restaurant that afternoon. The restaurant was filled with men wearing anything from a T-shirt and jeans to work suits – and sure enough, not even one businessman on his lunch break was without a beer and fries to go with his sandwich.
At first glance, the name ‘little French girl’ doesn’t make a ton of sense. There’s nothing little or feminine about this tower of fat and protein. But there is something French.
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La francesinha es un sándwich típico de Oporto. Pero la verdad, es mucho más que un simple sándwich. Consta de dos crujientes rebanadas de pan blanco rellenas de gran variedad de carnes y embutidos. El sándwich se cubre con rebanadas de queso y se baña con una salsa "secreta" creando una increíble sinfonía de sabores y texturas. En muchísimos restaurantes de Oporto se puede disfrutar de las francesinhas pero sin duda, uno de los mejores sitios para probarlas es Bufete Fase: un pequeño local con unas francesinhas de muerte y un trato inmejorable.
Like most iconic dishes, the origin of the franceshina is a little murky, but the generally accepted story goes a little something like this: During António Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal in the 50s and 60s, millions fled the country, and some 700,000 Portuguese moved to France. During their time there, they developed a taste for France’s beloved croque monsieur (ham and cheese, often with bechamel). When Salazar’s regime fell, many moved back and brought back home a taste for the French sandwich. One adapted the sandwich by filling it with copious amounts of meat and smothering it in a unique local sauce. (The story makes sense, except the sandwich certainly more closely resembles the croque madame, a croque monsieur with a layer of melted cheese and a fried egg on top).
If searching for the best franceshina in town, don’t look here for advice. One was too much for me to handle – I could barely finish half – so I scrapped my planned franceshina tour of Porto immediately. I can only tell you what Zeto told me: eat one at a place that serves little or nothing more than francesinhas. A bar, a sandwich shop or anywhere with a full menu probably isn’t your best bet.
I do have one piece of advice, though: if you happen to find yourself in the maze-like, cobblestoned streets of Porto, half drunk on fortified wine and looking for an adventure, and somebody asks you if you’d like to eat a little french girl, I highly recommend you say yes.