“What do you want?” asked the Juiz (judge).
“To eat chanfana!” I chanted, along with the 15 other initiates to the Confraria da Chanfana (brotherhood of goat casserole).
We were on the stage in the Vila Nova de Poiares cultural centre wearing long black cloaks and wide-brimmed black hats. A waitress gave us each a tiny black clay pot containing a morsel of slow-cooked goat in red wine and we dutifully ate our chanfana, careful not to spill any under the gaze of the audience.
“How was it?” said the Juiz.
There is only one permissible answer to this scripted question, all part of the ritual.
“Excellent!” we chorused.
Diploma and medallion duly accepted, I had now become an official member of one of Portugal’s most earnest defenders of its gastronomy.
Portugal has a network of confrarias (brotherhoods) dedicated to preserving and promoting the traditional recipes of specific dishes or food and drink from certain parts of the country. Members meet several times a year to plan events and to support other confrarias by attending their key events and food festivals.
Indeed, the ceremony for our initiation was a multicoloured affair, attracting confrades (brothers) from all around Portugal and even from France, where I’m told the whole idea originates from. As with my costume, there is always a connection between the apparel and the food and drink. The black of my cape represents the black pottery casserole dish that should ideally be used to cook chanfana, while the burgundy satin denotes the quality red wine that must be used. Our wide-brimmed hats are a nod to the country folk who reared goats and came up with this ancient recipe.
Unsurprisingly then, the honey brotherhood wear a golden yellow cloak, as do the free range chicken representatives, whereas the apple fans wear green. Half the fun at these gatherings will be to work out the connection between the costume and the gastronomy. Judging by the laden tables at the welcome reception, the other half will be stuffing my face!
It’s not all about eating, drinking and dressing up though. Confrarias tend to be involved in fundraising activities and work with local communities, not only to preserve their heritage but to build on it with new dishes and related creations.
What is chanfana?
Traditionally cooked in black earthenware pots made from local clay inside a wood oven, chanfana is well-loved in the Beira Litoral part of central Portugal. It originates from times when many people kept goats for their milk and kid meat. Once a goat stopped being useful and became another mouth to feed, it was destined for the pot. By that point, it really would be a tough old goat. The best way of tenderising the meat and making it palatable was by slow-cooking it in red wine with a few herbs and spices. The resulting dish turned out to be so tasty that it’s now a regional delicacy.
Many of my neighbours still have wood ovens and cook chanfana at home but for those without the time or facilities, there are several local restaurants who serve a decent chanfana. The ingredients are simple: goat meat, good quality red wine, garlic, bay leaves, paprika, lard, parsley, salt, chilli and olive oil. You simply place the meat and other ingredients in the casserole dish, pour over red wine then place in a wood oven for 4 hours to let the favours infuse.
As I discovered a few years ago, the true chanfana recipe, and indeed, the title of ‘(Universal) Capital of Chanfana’ is a source of dispute and rivalry between towns in this region. Now that I’m part of the brotherhood, I’m duty-bound to say that Vila Nova de Poiares’ chanfana surpasses all others although I haven’t put this to the taste test.
Rota da chanfana
The Confraria da Chanfana has partnered with the local artisan centre to create a half-day programme for those who want to know more about this dish and its traditions. You’ll get the chance to make your own black cooking pot, or perhaps buy one that was made earlier which will probably look better in your kitchen. After that, you’ll visit chanfana HQ to see the painted goats and see for yourself how it’s made before having lunch or dinner in the O Confrade restaurant, which is only open by appointment. What’s on the menu? Chanfana, of course!
The programme is free, except for the cost of the meal (around 15 euros per person). Because of this, there needs to be a minimum of about 10 people to make it viable for the organisers so if you’re interested, you’ll need to gather up your friends/family then contact the confraria on +351 239429000 or [email protected]. There will be someone who can deal with your initial request in English if necessary but if you need a translator during the tour, you need to say so when you make enquiries.
One of the things I really like about black pottery is the silvery sheen that’s achieved by polishing the piece after it’s been fired. The clay comes from a nearby place called Olho Marinho, also known for its beautiful coloured sandstone, and starts off as a normal terracotta colour. The blackness comes from the firing process – the pots are piled inside a brick oven which is sealed up once the fire gets going. The resulting smoke turns the clay black and no, it doesn’t wear off, or make your hands dirty.
If you just want to buy one of these black casserole dishes, or other items made in the same way, including decorative pieces and nativity scenes, ADIP have plenty for you to choose from. Look for the big blue building on the EN17 near the São Miguel de Poiares roundabout. The keyholders will be in the beige building across the road that looks like a school but is actually a creche and community centre.
Proceeds go towards funding this non-profit organisation which provides integrated social support as well as creative workshops and professional training programmes. More information on the ADIP Facebook page.
If you can’t make it to Vila Nova de Poiares…
…this video, produced by the Confraria da Chanfana, shows you the traditional black clay pots, the simple ingredients and the traditional method of cooking chanfana: