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A taste of ‘ginjinha’

Lisbon's favourite liqueur, warms the soul and puts a spring in the step

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

“Do you want to try it in a chocolate cup?" asks Bruno Nobre, the owner of Reis Nobre Bar, an atmospheric old tavern on the cobbled main street of the medieval hilltop town of Óbidos, just 85km from Lisbon. “It" is ginjinha, a traditional Portuguese liqueur made from sour morello cherries. Since I have arrived in Óbidos on the eve of the annual International Chocolate Festival, and considering my sweet tooth, I enthusiastically say “yes". Nobre pours a shot of the ruby-red liqueur from a glass decanter into a tiny chocolate mug. It’s sweet, perhaps cloyingly so, with a hint of the tartness of the sour cherries, and it’s potent—I can feel the warmth descending my throat. “Centuries ago, the monks in the nearby Alcobaça Monastery taught the people in Óbidos to farm; the monastery was paid with fruit, which probably led the monks to start making this liqueur," Nobre says.

In Lisbon, which loves its ginjinha, I hear a different story about the origins of the drink. Here it is credited to Francisco Espinheira, a 19th century Galician friar who probably hit upon the idea due to the surplus of fruits from the orchards surrounding Lisbon. Irrespective of who made ginjinha first, the recipe is constant—the fruit is usually picked in June and soaked in the Portuguese brandy aguardente for four-five months, along with a hefty dose of sugar.

Courtesy: Prachi Joshi
Courtesy: Prachi Joshi

There are two variants of ginjinha (often shortened to ginja)—com ginja and sem ginja, i.e. with or without cherries. The ginja are at the bottom of the bottle and it requires a fair bit of skill to pour the drink with just one or two cherries popping into the shot glass. Lisboetas down ginjinha at all times of the day; it’s traditional to order com ginja, drink the liqueur in one shot and then suck on the cherry before spitting out the pit, often on to the street.

The most popular ginjinha spot in Lisbon is A Ginjinha, a hole-in-the-wall store-front just off the monumental Rossio Square. A moving crowd lines up here through the day, and I join the queue one spring evening. Ordering a glass of ginjinha with cherries, I take it outside. It’s filled to the brim and the drink threatens to slop over my dress, so I down it in a gulp. It’s less syrupy and not as sweet as the Óbidos version. It’s also a tad stronger—it warms the soul and puts a spring in my step as I head towards Alfama for an evening of fado.

Photo: iStockphoto

Lisbon’s favourite ‘ginjinha’ bars

A Ginjinha: Lisbon’s original ginjinha bar, A Ginjinha was the first to start selling the liqueur commercially. Opened in 1840, the bar, still family owned, is run by the fifth generation. There’s often a queue outside, comprising both locals and tourists. A shot of ginjinha costs €1.4 (around Rs100), and the shop also sells bottles of ginjinha for €11 (Largo São Domingos 8, 1100-201 Lisbon; open 9am-10pm daily).

Ginjinha Sem Rival: Located opposite A Ginjinha is Ginjinha Sem Rival, a family-run bar that opened its doors in 1890. It is one of the few places that still make the liqueur in-house. The bar is also known for another liqueur, called Eduardino, made from fruits, herbs and aniseed (Rua Portas De Santo Antão 7, 1150-268 Lisbon; open 8am-12midnight weekdays, 9am-12midnight weekends).

Ginginha do Carmo: Opened in the mid-1930s, this is a tiny storefront ginjinha bar located outside Rossio station at the foot of the stairs leading up to Chiado (Calçada do Carmo, 37, 1200-090 Lisbon; open 1.30pm-12midnight).

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