Legend has it that a tired and hungry friar walked into the house of a peasant in Almeirim on a cold evening. Holding a well polished stone in his hands he asked:
“Can I use your cauldron and kitchen to cook myself a stone soup?”
The peasant curious to see what the result would be called his wife, and took the friar into the kitchen. The friar took a large iron cauldron, filled it with water and set it on the fire. As the water began to bubble, he dropped in his stone and a little while later tasted the soup and said that it needed a little seasoning.
When handed a little salt, he suggested that a little bit of ‘chouriço’ (traditional sausage), or a chunk of pork may be better. The housewife graciously obliged and brought out a few pieces.
Not content with the result, the friar asked if she might have a few potatoes that might thicken his soup. The housewife gave him a couple of potatoes, and the friar chopped those and dropped them into the pot. And as the pot continued to boil, the friar looked around taking in the well-stocked kitchen.
“Could I have another piece of that spicy chouriço?” the friar asked, “and perhaps a handful of those kidney beans?”
And as the kindly lord consented, the friar looked around again, and over the next couple of minutes picked up a piece of veal and another of bacon… a chunk of cabbage and a few string beans… a few fresh peas and a sprinkling of herbs…
Soon the kitchen came alive with the bubbling of the pot and the lovely aroma of the meat and the herbs as it slowly cooked itself into a rich broth.
The friar sampled a spoonful, and beamed in delight, and then served a bowlfuls to the family. In minutes everyone in that kitchen was enjoying the broth which as the friar had said in the beginning was to be a ‘sopa da pedra’ or a soup of stone.
Now that the soup was done, the friar fished the stone out of the pot, washed and dried it off, and plopped it back in his pocket for the next time. He thanked his hosts and walked away… to another house in the village and cooked another pot of the delicious soup. And to the next… and the next… and soon every household in the village was cooking the soup.
And continue to do so until this day!
I got myself the recipe from the nice lady who was chopping up the ingredients for her broth at the Minhoto – a lovely little restaurant on the Rua de Timor in the heart of Almeirim. But I am sure it will never taste the same as it does in the village. The freshly baked ‘Pao Caseiro’ – a thick Portuguses bread or a slice of ‘Queijo da Nisa’ (cheese) adds to the meal as does a good glass of full-bodied ‘Tinto’ brought from the vineyards just a few hundred metres away. The olives are this year’s crop from the village farms as are most of the vegetables and the meat.
And then there is the warmth of the Portuguese heart and the hearth… a combination that makes it a favored destination for many travelers.
I served myself a second helping, and had no place for the tempting ‘gelatos’ settling instead for a traditional coffee. As we drove out, we passed by many family run restaurants all crowded as customers from far and wide enjoyed this lovely soup… but for me it will as be the best at Minhoto.
You have to try it to know why I’ll be heading that way again, very soon.
When Rui from Around Lisbon spoke of the plan to try the sopa da pedra for lunch, as much as it tickled the curiosity in my taste buds, it also tickled my curiosity for the truth. I have a vague memory of being told of the stone soup by my father and his modest attempt to cook one at home, but here we were, apparently heading in the general direction of Almeirim, the birthplace of the story. This little town – ‘capital da sopa da pedra’, is located in the heart of the Ribatejo region, on the banks of the Tejo river, just a short drive from the city of Santarém and about an hour drive East from Lisbon. I later learn that there are many variations of the story, but at its heart is an underlying message of uniting together in times of need.
Incidentally, it is one of the icons of traditional Portuguese cuisine, and a finalist in 7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy.
A version of the recipe for Sopa da Pedra de Almeirim (Serves 6-8)
500 gms of kidney beans soaked the night before
A pig’s ear sliced thin
1 large chouriço negro (a typical blood sausage)
1 large meat chouriço
A few slices of pork belly or bacon
500 gms potatoes cubed
A piece of cabbage
2 chopped onions
2 garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1 bunch of cilantro/coriander chopped fine
Salt and pepper to taste
Begin by boiling the soaked kidney beans with the pig’s ear, sausages, pork belly, onions, garlic and bay leaf. Season the broth with salt and pepper to suit your taste. Make sure you have a good broth. Set the cooked meat aside and then add the potatoes and cilantro to the pot. Cook until the potatoes are done. Remove the pot from the heat, add the previously chopped meat back in and don’t forget to drop in a well-washed stone.
(Remember to boil the ingredients separately as they take different times to cook)