How a Portuguese Sausage Saved Medieval Jews


At a time when Jews were being tortured and killed, one of Portugal’s “gastronomic wonders,” the humble alheira sausage, may have saved thousands of lives. (BBC Travel)

What Jewish communities were likely familiar with alheira?

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Alheira, the U-shaped sausage to the left in this Brazilian market, is sometimes credited with helping Jewish families survive the infamous Inquisition.
Photograph by The Photographer, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.O

Discussion Ideas

  • The intriguing BBC article credits alheira sausage with saving the lives of some Jewish communities in medieval Portugal. Why did medieval Portuguese Jews need saving in the first place? Read through our great articles “Hidden History” and “Reconquista Complete” for some help.
    • In the late 15th century, the Catholic Inquisition was established to enforce strict practices of Catholicism in Western Europe. It did this through persecution, imprisonment, expulsion and exile, torture, and execution.
      • Although most famously associated with medieval Spain, the Inquisition was neither entirely Spanish or stuck in the Middle Ages. In addition to the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Inquisition also included the Portuguese Inquisition and the Roman Inquisition (overseen by the Pope). All three inquisitions lasted until the 19th century.
      • The Inquisition targeted Jews and Muslims.
        • The Inquisition followed the Reconquista, the period when Catholic leaders wrested control of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. Under Moorish rule, Muslims and Jews were allowed to practice their religion. Catholic leaders ultimately forced Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or be tortured and expelled. Some of these conversos continued to practice their religion in secret. The Inquisition was established in part to identify these conversos, take their land and goods, and punish them.
        • The Inquisition was designed to find those individuals who had converted to Christianity [but] who were not practicing Christianity to their level. If not, then they would be tortured, killed, and their families would be killed as well.”


  • How did alheira help protect Portugal’s persecuted Jewish communities?
    • Alheira helped Portuguese Jews blend in with their Catholic neighbors.
      • In the Portuguese region of Trás-os-Montes, “every home preserved pork sausages to see the family through the winter, hanging them from the rafters in meaty coils. Jews—who did not eat pork—were conspicuous for their missing sausages.”
      • The Jewish community in the Trás-os-Montes town of Mirandela developed a sausage stuffed with bread and chicken that looked identical to the U-shaped pork sausages hanging from their neighbors’ rafters. To Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, alheira was very similar to kishke, a kosher sausage stuffed with fat, meal, and vegetables. The sausage “could fool informers and local zealots who [would have] denounced them to the Inquisition for not eating pork.”


  • Today, alheira is the everyday “King of Portuguese Sausages.” How is modern alheira different from the medieval version developed by the Jewish community of Mirandela?
    • It’s a lot more diverse. According to the BBC, alheira “is no longer kosher and can include everything from pork to game, or even be vegetarian.”


  • What are some other ways in which Spanish and Portuguese Jews survived the Inquisition? Read through the BBC article and our article “Hidden History” for some help.
    • According to the BBC, “Portugal’s secret Jews went to huge lengths to conceal their religion—from writing Hebrew prayers in Catholic prayer books to combining Jewish words with Catholic rituals.”
    • What the people did is that they got very smart,” says Rabbi Josef Garcia, co-founder of the Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas. “They ate pork. They went to Catholic church. They had statues of the saints. They would make donations to the church. They did not circumcise their children. They never celebrated anything out in the open. They would just celebrate things behind closed doors, behind closed curtains. They got really good at hiding, but they practiced Jewish traditions.”
    • Thousands of Jews and Crypto-Jews migrated from Europe to Africa, India, China, and new Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas. Unfortunately, the Inquisition followed these Jews to the New World, which meant the transplanted Jewish people had to continue to conceal their religious beliefs.
    • “Every family who was under extreme scrutiny would have a statue of the Virgin Mary in their house,” Garcia explains. “Now, what they would do is take the mezuzah, which is a small, square kind of box with the word of God [the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael”] on it, and they would carve out the bottom of the statue. And they would put this mezuzah in the feet of the statue. Every time they walked in and out of the house, they would appear to be touching and kissing the feet of the statue, but they were actually touching and kissing the mezuzah.”



BBC Travel: Portugal’s sneaky sausage that saved Jews

Nat Geo: Hidden History article

Nat Geo: Reconquista Complete article

Jewish Virtual Library: Christian-Jewish Relations: The Inquisition


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