Travel Guide to Portugal

Discover Jewish Heritage throughout Portugal and Spain

By Gabriella Opaz

Orange trees scent a patio in Lisbon’s ancient Alfama neighborhood. Cilantro is used to season a seafood stew, made just like this for over a thousand years. Sausage made with bread stuffing hangs in a smokehouse and its true origin is hidden. A cook fries tiny fish in olive oil, unaware of the stories that belie this humble dish. Almond blossoms bloom and announce the eventual nut harvest which then becomes desserts with a “conventual” past.

But from whom did the nuns get their recipes? At times it appears the Jewish history in Portugal is that of ghosts, just whispers of a past that is barely discernible in today’s modern cacophony. How do you tell the story of a people that no longer exists? How do you bring these ghosts to life? How does one properly describe a formerly great and mighty melting pot? At Catavino, we believe that the story does matter and that its telling is still vital to understanding the history of Iberia, all its people, and the culture that still guides its habits today.

Jewish History in Iberia

In the history of Iberia’s Jews, Spain looms large; most people have heard of the Spanish Inquisition, regardless of whether or not they fully understand what its impact was, its scope, or the history that preceded it. What is not as well known is that there was a Portuguese Inquisition as well. The Portuguese Inquisition was both intriguingly different than the Spanish version, yet eventually, horrifyingly the same.

The Portuguese Inquisition, and what eventually led to the snuffing out of an extraordinary and multi-faceted culture, is but one chapter in a great saga of an ancient people. In some ways, this group saw some of their greatest triumphs and achieved some of their highest heights on Iberian Portuguese soil. The story of Portuguese Jews differs from the story in Spain, and there is a great yearning to know this uniquely Portuguese take on the story of Jews and Judaism.

Queijada Portuguese Pastry

The Golden Era of Iberian Judaism

Jews have existed in Portugal for over two thousand years. They are members of the Jewish cultural family called Sephardi – a label that binds all the Jews of the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa. As subjects of the Roman Empire, Jews were allowed to travel throughout the Roman world and came to populate the Iberian Peninsula and Portugal when it was the Roman province of Lusitania. During the first Christian era in Portugal, after the fall of Rome, during what is known as the Visigothic period, the Jews were subjugated and persecuted. However, this period was short-lived, and when the Moors arrived in the year 711, the persecution period that is now viewed as the Golden Era of Iberian Judaism began.

The Moors of North Africa ruled Portugal from 711 until the middle of the 13th century, and during this time, Jews played an integral role in the society and culture of Al-Andalus, or Moorish Iberia. Jews, Arabs and Christians lived in relative harmony during the Moorish period, and Jews and Christians were allowed to live relatively freely, so long as they paid a tax for not being Muslim. It was because of this harmonious and multi-cultural society that Jewish thought and culture were able to flourish under the Moors, allowing many of Judaism’s most famous figures to rise to prominence.

When the Christian Kings reconquered Iberia, they relied on Jews as Arabic translators, spies and facilitators. Because of this, during the first several centuries of Christian rule in the newly fashioned kingdom of Portugal, the Jewish people were highly regarded. Throughout this time period, Jews occupied high-level positions in government, society, diplomatic circles, and business. Had it not been for the alliance of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns through marriage in 1497, Jews might have continued to thrive and prosper under a patronage relationship with the Portuguese crown.

Jewish Pastries of Portugal

The Inquisition

In 1492, Spain expelled its Jewish population as part of the Spanish Inquisition. Tens of thousands of Spanish Jews fled to Portugal, where King John II granted them asylum in return for payment. However, the asylum was only temporary—after eight months, the Portuguese government decreed the enslavement of all Jews. Following John’s death in 1494, the new king Manuel I of Portugal restored the freedom of the Jews. In 1497, Manuel married Isabella, a princess of Spain, and Spain forced Portugal to adopt it’s policies regarding the Jewish population. As a result, King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children.

Like the Spanish Inquisition, Portugal’s version concentrated its efforts on rooting out converts from other faiths who did not adhere to the strictures of Catholic orthodoxy. Between 1540 and 1794 tribunals in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Évora burned 1,175 persons, another 633 were burned in effigy, and 29,590 were punished in a variety of ways. The Portuguese inquisition was finally extinguished in 1821 by the “General Extraordinary and Constituent Courts of the Portuguese Nation”.

Vast Jewish Emigration from Iberia

Thousands of Portuguese Jews would eventually emigrate to Amsterdam, London, Greece, Turkey, France, Morocco, Brazil, Curaçao and the Antilles, as well as North America. In some of these places their presence can still be seen, as in the use of the Ladino language by some Jewish communities in Turkey, the Portuguese-based dialects of the Netherlands Antilles, and some of the earliest synagogues built in North America.

In this way the Jews were eventually expelled from Iberia, nearly extinguishing one of the most vibrant and lasting vestiges of ancient culture in Europe. Fortunately for us, the story does not end here. Jews persevered and preserved their culture in hidden colonies in places such as Belmonte, in Northeast Portugal, and continued to leave their mark on Portuguese society. The story of the rescue of thousands of Jews during WWII through Portuguese authorities is a remarkable story of bravery and subversion and provides an intriguing wrinkle to the story of the fascist Salazar regime that ruled Portugal for the majority of the 20th century. Portugal was one of the few countries in Europe during the mid-20th century that did not experience a wave of antisemitism, a fact that adds texture and nuance to what might otherwise be a binary tale of a ruthless despot. A Jewish community was re-christened officially in both Lisbon and Porto early in the 20th century, and today, Jews who can show Iberian and Portuguese ancestry can return to Portugal as citizens.

The Vestiges of Jewish Food in Iberia 

On the food front, seeing the history of Jews in Portugal through the lens of food is often one of the only tangible means to experience this story. Much of what constitutes Jewish food in Portugal is shared by other members of the Sephardi culture, as well as in North Africa, where the Moors would eventually transform into today’s modern Berber Moroccans. In fact, much of what is Jewish food in Iberia is indiscernible from that which is considered Moorish – and for good reason, as during the Moorish period, Jews and Muslims shared the same diet, and worked from the same repertoire of recipes. There are common markers though: the heavy use of orange and citrus as a flavor, a reliance on Cilantro as the dominant herb, using almonds and cinnamon in dessert, and a mastery of frying that was the envy of the Mediterranean world.

Jewish Flavors of Portugal and Spain

Many recipes that the Portuguese now take for granted have their roots in Jewish tradition – dishes such as Caldeirada (fisherman’s stew), Alheira (bread and meat sausage), Pasteis de Bacalhau (cod fritters), and Arroz Doce (Sweet, spiced rice pudding) all can claim Jewish roots as old as the history of Jews in Iberia. Kosher wine is making a comeback in Portugal as well, and why not? With Portugal being one of the greatest countries on Earth for wine, it only seems appropriate that the ancient Jewish community of Belmonte, and others, would begin to make good wine appropriate for Kosher certification.

Spain equally has Jewish culinary roots that goes back centuries. In some cases, Jews were marked by the dishes they prepared; adafina, a traditional Sabbath stew of meat, chickpeas, fava beans, onions, garlic, cumin and other spices was occasionally used to identify Jews during the Inquisition. Historian Gil Marks writes in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that Sponge cake, known in Ladino (the Spanish-Hebrew hybrid language of Sephardi Jews) as “pan de Espana” or Bread of Spain, was first baked in Moorish Spain around the year 1000 and eventually became popular throughout Europe. One good reason the airy cake has remained in the Jewish community is its adaptability for Passover. As matzah meal and potato starch can stand in for flour, achieving equally excellent results, Sponge Cake has remained one of the most popular desserts on seder tables. And we’re just scratching the surface as to the rich Kosher influence on Spanish cuisine.

These stories and more await those who try and discover, to attempt to see the stories where buildings have long since dissolved into time, and to keep alive the memory of this extraordinary tale by hearing the narrative, and seeing its continuance in modern Jewish communities throughout Portugal and Spain. Learn more about our Jewish Tours!

Feature Tours

Lisbon Jewish Culture and Cuisine Experience

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Lisbon City Break: Food and Wine Tour

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Girona Jewish Cuisine & Culture Tour

Today you’ll explore two charming towns just north of Barcelona steeped in Jewish culture. In the

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Catavino is the best place to learn about travel, food
and wine in Portugal and Spain.

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