Of all the things I could remember about a trip to Portugal, I remember soup.
All of sixteen years old at the time of the visit, I traveled there with my parents, both originally born in a small Portuguese village called Vale Covo. One morning, we made a day trip to the city of Alcobaça, roughly 75 miles north of Lisbon, to meet up with one of my father’s old army buddies. My father was the equivalent of a sergeant in the Portuguese Army, deployed in Angola, and the man we were going to be having lunch with was one of his subordinates.
I do wish I remember more details about that day. The man’s name, for example, escapes me, though I do remember him wanting to match me up with his daughter (“Nice try, dude, but no chance without a picture!”). I also remember the weather, which was overcast, and unseasonably cool for August in Portugal. A perfect day for a bowl of soup.
Sopa de pedra
It was my first experience with sopa de pedra, known in English as rock soup. It’s a story told across Europe, tweaked slightly depending on the country you’re from. The Portuguese version goes like this:
A traveling monk is passing through Almeirim while on a pilgrimage and stops at a home. Too proud to come out an ask for food, he asks instead for the opportunity to use the family’s fire and a pot to cook sopa de pedra. They invite him in to their home, amused by this idea of a soup made from a rock. Bringing water to a boil in the pot, the monk removes a smooth, clean stone from his pocket and drops it in. The water bubbles, and after a short while the monk takes a taste. “It needs a little seasoning,” he says, eyeing his hosts. The wife brings over some salt, and feeling compassion for the humble monk brings a small plate with some sliced chouriço, a portuguese sausage. In to the pot it goes. More time passes, and the monk takes another taste of the soup. “I think it just needs to be a little bit thicker,” he proclaims. “Would you perhaps have any leftover potatoes or beans? Something you could do without?” The wife, smiling, does him a further kindness, pouring little of both in to the pot. After simmering for a while longer, the monk stirs the pot, bringing the rock up out of the broth. He wipes it down and returns it to his pocket. Looking to the family, he declares the soup ready and, of course, delicious.
Is it a true story? No one really knows. One thing I do know: it makes for a tasty soup.
The sopa de pedra I had that day was amazing, and unexpected. Filled to the brim with chunks of potato, chouriço, and bacon. The broth was bread-dipping worthy, with little bits of cilantro floating about. What follows is an attempted translation of an old Portuguese recipe. Enjoy!
- 2 large cans of kidney beans
- 2 large chouriço, or other mediterranean sausage
- 6 oz. pork belly, fatback or bacon
- 2 lbs. potatoes, cubed
- 2 onions, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- Chopped cilantro
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Chopped parsley, for garnish
Note: You can include thinly sliced pig ear, or trotters to enhance the flavor. If you go with ear, you can keep it in the soup when its ready to serve.
- Boil the kidney beans, sausage, pork, onions, garlic and bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Traditionally you would just use water, but for added flavor you can use chicken broth.
- Once the meat is cooked, take it out and reserve. Once cooled slightly, chop the meat in to small pieces.
- Add the diced potatoes and cilantro to the pot.
- Let the potatoes cook through until fork-tender.
- Remove the pot from the heat, add the previously chopped meat back.
- Serve in a bowl of your choice, and top with chopped parsley.