Monday, June 3, 2013

After you drink the ginja... you eat the cup!

In honor of the upcoming June 10th "Portugal Day", I am reviving an article I wrote a few years ago about one of my favorite travel elixirs, in one of my favorite travel destinations. Ahhh... Obidos.. and ginja (ginjinha)!

The ginja kisses the lips sweetly, pausing to linger. Then in a cherry flash, it races to sting the back of the throat. Before the mind can truly appreciate that small betrayal, it comes to rest warmly in the stomach.  And then after you drink the ginja... you eat the cup.

It was the ginja or ginginha that brought me here to Obidos, a small Portuguese village about 45 miles northwest of Lisbon. Ginja de Obidos is a sweet liqueur, essentially a Portuguese aguaredente or brandy,  prepared with bitter cherries known as ginja, sugar, and spices. While the liqueur itself is a tempting aperitif that is now available throughout Portugal, the town of Obidos has found a way to take it a notch up.  It is only natural that a place that is home of both the famed Festival de Chocolate Obidos and the delectable Ginja de Obidos would find a way to marry the two regional calling cards. In Obidos, one drinks the ginja in small dark chocolate cups. As the local saying goes, “after you drink the ginja... you eat the cup.”

Upon arrival in Obidos by tour bus, I step down onto a stone street and stare up at the intimidating medieval wall ahead. A public restroom, snack bar type shop and kitschy souvenir stand welcome me and I wonder about the authenticity of this experience. Will this give me a glimpse, and taste, into the real Portugal?  I follow the crooked cobbled street into the walled city, smiling at the craftswomen who run tables of handmade goods and local nuts and treats along the main road in.

In Obidos, the roads are very narrow, they turn suddenly in places, veer through towers and behind buildings. There are some cars on the road- speeding haphazardly by, but they are blissfully few and far between. I pass small cafes and bars, they all advertise ginja. I pass small shops, selling local handicrafts, books, general merchandise- and of ginja.  I move on, not quite sure where to even begin. As I encounter my first 900 year old stone stairway without a safety rail to the wall above I realize this is no tamed down version of anything. Obidos is a true remnant of medieval Portugal, authentic in every way that matters.

A quick and heart racing climb up yields an impressive view of the amazing Portuguese countryside. A land of green and gold, dotted with white buildings topped with terra cotta tiled roofs. Here and there a windmill, and off to one side a still intact ancient Roman aqueduct. The air is fresh, and still slightly cool in early spring but the sun beams overhead. I head back down toward the shops and cafes, and select one at random. The cash register sits on a sturdy countertop, that is dominated by a giant bottle of ginja. The bottle displays one of the local Obidos labels, and through the glass I can see whole
pale cherries resting at the bottom of the liquid. I decide to forego the pretense of Portuguese fluency and try English instead, “one ginja please!”  The clerk pours the amber liquid into a small glass, more shot glass than sipping glass. I realize I forgot to mention the chocolate cup, but decide to drink it anyway. The ginja is sweet, and then slightly spicy, and then hot in my stomach.  It goes down smooth and sweet, and I really want to try it with the chocolate cup. I decide to visit a neighboring shop that sold ginja under a different label to get a true local sampling.

“One ginja in chocolate please.... por favor.” A smiling man reaches into a cooler and withdraws a small paper container. Within it is a tiny, perfectly formed, dark chocolate cup. It even has a small handle to one side, like a miniature espresso mug. He carefully pours the ginja into the cup and hands it to me with an expectant look. The look of anticipation on my face must have betrayed me as a novice and he is excited for me. It is then I first hear the local saying, “First you drink the ginja, then you eat the cup.”

I drink the ginja. I eat the cup. Sour cherries, sweet brandy, dark chocolate all collide to create magic in my mouth. It is a drink that can only be properly enjoyed here, on these uneven, choppy streets. I have found the heart of modern Obidos in this small shop. After thanking my server I leave to explore the narrow cobblestone streets some more, to find the heart of modern Obidos in more shops and cafes.

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