The easiest Portuguese tradition to adopt is undoubtedly the one that takes any decent Lisboner to the Portas de Santo Antão - at dawn or dusk - to enjoy a glass of ginjinha. And if you scratch the surface, the story behind the tradition is as fascinating as the tradition itself.
The Ginja is nothing other than the Morello cherry. However, it should not be confused with the guigne that is macerated in France, because while the guigne is a sweet cherry, the morello cherry leaves a bitter taste in the back of the throat. As is often the case when it comes to ancestral traditions, the Ginja comes from far away. It is said to have travelled from the gates of Constantinople, to the farthest reaches of the Orient. Introduced to Rome by Lucullus, it would have landed in Portugal during the Empire before the orchards were ravaged by the barbarians and it disappeared from the country. It was not until the Renaissance that ginja made a comeback, and by the 18th century it was common to find ginjais* throughout Portugal, particularly in the Lisbon region.
If the drink was so popular, it was mainly due to its supposed therapeutic properties. In fact, the French druggist Jean Vigier, who was also King João V’s physician, described in a 1718 treatise how useful ginjas galegas were for health. According to him, ginja was beneficial in the fight against fever, diarrhoea and other mood swings, but it was above all its benefits against lung infections that made it so famous. The sales pitch is simple: to avoid getting sick, drink ginja. Imparable. Some, such as the Spaniards Miguez & Cerdeira, went even further by offering a licor peitoral de Ginja directly in their shop in the rue des Correeiros from 1927. However, the huge craze for ginjinha bars in the 19th century strangely coincided with the epidemics of tuberculosis, the great evil of the century.
Long ago, ratafia, a word derived from French Creole, was the term used for fruit liquor. Having disappeared from the Portuguese language, ratafia de ginja became extremely popular in Lisbon under the impetus of the Spaniards and in particular the Galicians, those long-time immigrants often compared to the Auvergnats of Paris. Hard workers, they were the ones who ran the first tascas in the 19th century, notably the famous Tendinha do Rossio founded in 1840. And since no one ever ate without drinking, they were the ones who founded the very first ginjinha bars.
And since Lisbon’s oral tradition has left us with some very interesting stories on all subjects, there is no reason why it should be any different for ginjinha. It is said that it was Francisco Espinheira who founded the first ginja establishment, « A Ginjinha« , on the Largo de Sao Domingos in 1840. An emigrant from Galicia, this man is said to have received his disconcertingly simple recipe from a Franciscan from the church of Santo Antonio. « Morello cherries macerated in Moscatel brandy, then bottled before being exposed to the sun for four days. To be consumed in the following year! » Espinheira was so proud of his creation that he decided to create the world’s first bar where this cheap liquor would be served exclusively to barflies, imaginary sick people and other passers-by with a dry throat. When he died, his son, Francisco junior, inherited the business and took it to another dimension. A dimension such that for any Portuguese of the time : a ginja is drunk at Espinheira. In 1906, he even launched a major promotional campaign by registering the brand « F.Espinheira 1°Fabricante ! » This was a deliberately offensive sales strategy, as it was at this time that a major adversary was emerging.
This new opponent is João Manuel Lourenço Cima, founder of Ginjinha sem Rival. And the story of their competition echoes one of Lisbon’s most mythical questions : « Com o sem ela ? « . Even today, any barista will ask you this question while serving you a glass of ginja, referring to the cherry, of course. But not only that. In all likelihood, J.M.L Cima, also from Galicia, was originally a brilliant employee of the venerable Espinheira Jr. So much so that at the end of the 19th century, Francisco would have done him the ultimate honour of offering him the hand of his only daughter, Joaquina… « Com o sem ela ? » he is said to have asked one evening. Well, it will be sem ela for Cima, who does not find his boss’s daughter at all to his liking. Obviously, this refusal is experienced as a supreme affront by Espinheira who will see everything he has built crumble at the same time. Indeed, just after refusing to join the Espinheira family, João Manuel Lourenço Cima founded his own brand, located right across the street from the master’s, and because the story of this refusal spread like wildfire, ginjinha lovers began to speak of Ginjinha sem Rival to designate this new bar. This was one provocation too many for the old man, who could easily imagine the cherry pit battles that had been going on in the street during those years.
A merciless war between the two Ginjinha bars began. Between the master and the apprentice, the traitor and the betrayer. « Sem Rival » is said on one side, « The best of all ! » is the answer on the other. And if Espinheira’s bottles read « premiado com as mais altas recompensas nas exposições em que tem participado »**, Cima hits his with a scathing reply « esta casa nunca concorreu a nenhuma exposição nem estrangeira « ***. The tone is set. La Ginja Sem Rival found its clientele by dipping into Espinheira’s customers and in particular a Catalan clown who was clowning around at the Coliseu. A certain Eduardino, known for drinking a mixture of ginja and aniseed liqueurs before work.
The fruit of success being innovation, J.M.L. Cima made a name for himself by creating a brand new liquor : the famous Eduardino liquor, based on the clown recipe. Espinheira’s prestige took a huge hit, as Lisbon flocked to taste the drink. In the 1930s, in the hope of selling her lemons, it was the young Amalia Rodrigues who came barefoot to the front of Sem Rival. In the 1950s, the Espinheira family made a last attempt to compete with Ginjinha Sem Rival by registering a new brand : Liquor Duartinho Espinheira. It was a failure.
The years passed, the rivalry dissipated, the ginjinha remained. The descendants of the two families are still in charge, perpetuating for more than a century the tradition of serving alfacinhas, a liquor that warms hearts and minds. Without the cherry pits that fly from one house to another, however.
* Farms of cherry trees
** Awarded the highest prize in all the competitions it has entered
*** This house has never participated in any competition
Of course you have the ever-popular A Ginjinha and Sem Rival liquors at Largo Sao Domingos. Otherwise, take a trip to Alfama ! If on the Rossio side we have the troublesome cannabis dealers, on the Alfama side we have the friendly Ginja dealers. The Portuguese grandmothers serve you for a small fee a sweet homemade liquor (and I suspect a bit of a brandy cut ;)). Do them a favour, it’s for their retirement ! And finally, if you want to taste the best ginjinha in the world, call on us and during a nice private tour, we’ll try to make you try the one from Mouraria 🙂