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My Dad’s Childhood Experience Making Ginja
A story I recently discovered.
During my December break, Paul and I traveled to Florida to visit family. I especially wanted to spend some time with my dad who is 96 years old, a little frail, but still sharp as a tack. Dad loves to hear my stories about my experiences living in Portugal as it brings back fond memories of his growing-up years living with his sister and his parents in Providence, Rhode Island.
If you don’t already know this, my ancestry is Portuguese. My grandparents (both maternal and paternal) came to America from Portugal in the early 1900’s as young adults, and their children – my parents included - were born in the United States. As a child, I remember some of the Portuguese traditions that my grandparents continued in America – especially at Christmas - but I had never heard the story about my dad making Ginja at home with his parents as a boy until recently.
What is Ginja?
Ginja (also known as Ginjinha) is one of the oldest and most beloved drinks in Portugal. It’s a type of liqueur made from sour cherries which are also called Ginja berries. In English, they’re known as Morello cherries. The liqueur is made by macerating the sour cherries and infusing them in alcohol such as aguardente or brandy. Sugar and other ingredients are added, producing a ruby-red liquid. It is generally served in a shot glass or sometimes in a small chocolate cup. It is high in alcohol content, generally between 18 to 24 percent.
The origins of Ginja are thought to date back to the Middle Ages, when it was made – most likely by different religious orders - as a remedy for ailments like colds, coughs, and digestive problems. The liqueur was served in small wooden cups and aided in soothing sore throats. But in fact, no one knows exactly the origins of the beverage since each region of Portugal has its own story.
Two primary cities in Portugal boast the best Ginja in the country – Alcobaça and Óbidos. This is due to microclimates in those regions that produce some of the finest wild Ginja berries in Europe. It was in Óbidos that the idea of serving Ginja in an edible chocolate shot cup was introduced and has become a popular way to taste the beverage.
Most of the beverage produced commercially is consumed in Portugal with about ten percent exported to other countries. The taste can vary depending on where the drink is produced and the recipe that is used (often a secret).
In the not-too-distant future, Paul and I are planning a road trip to Óbidos where tasting Ginja will be on our agenda. In a future article, I’ll let you know how it goes.
I had never heard of Ginja.
I didn’t know what Ginja was until one day, while still living in Arizona, my hairstylist Alfonso told me about his fondness for Ginja and how he had enjoyed it when he had visited Portugal. He told me that when Paul and I moved to Portugal, tasting Ginja should be top on my list of new experiences. I’m not sure why, but we waited almost a year to try it.
A surprise recollection.
On one of my visits with my dad, I told him I was planning to try Ginja in Portugal during the upcoming Christmas holiday. I asked him if he had ever tasted Ginja and he said, yes, he had. He then began to tell me (with a smile) about when as a young boy, how he and his parents made Ginja at home at Christmastime. This was a recollection about my dad’s childhood I had never heard about.
Although Dad couldn’t remember the exact recipe, he recalled having to put a lot of cherries into a jug and that sugar and cinnamon sticks were added, and he even thought that his mother added red food coloring to the liquid (maybe to replace red wine if it wasn’t available – or maybe she just told him it was food coloring and not wine). After the cherries softened, his job was to squeeze the cherries into something like cheesecloth to release their juice a little at a time, into another jug.
After the process was complete and the Ginja was ready, his parents would allow him a taste. As he said this, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and then said, “It was very good!”
I did a little research and found this recipe for Ginja that you can make at home. From my dad’s description of his own experience, this is the closest recipe (in English) that I could find (there are others on YouTube in Portuguese).
Although some people (me included) knock back a shot glass of this drink, it’s recommended to be sipped. And it’s perfectly acceptable to drink a shot of Ginja not just after dinner but any time of the day.
There are many Ginja bars and kiosks throughout Portugal where you can buy a glass. You might be asked if you want it with or without the fruit (the macerated cherries). In Portuguese it’s “Com ou sem fruta?” Just be mindful that the cherries still have pits inside.
Where to buy Ginja.
In Portugal, you can purchase a bottle of Ginja at the Ginja bars or in most grocery stores or cellar shops. In some of the tourist areas such as Lisbon, Porto, Cascais, or Óbidos, shops selling tourist mementos may sell bottles of Ginja.
Outside of Portugal, select Total Wine stores in the United States carry Ginja. To find a store in your area or country, try doing a Google search using the term, “Buy Ginja and [name of your country”].
My Ginja experience.
I wasn’t sure I would like Ginja as I’m not fond of sweet drinks, but one December afternoon while shopping at the Mercado da Vila (Cascais Mercado), Paul and I decided we’d try a glass. When poured into the shot glass, the color was reddish amber. The taste was sweet but not overly sweet. There were notes of spices like cinnamon and cloves. The finish was smooth, soft, and lingering. In spite of my skepticism, I must say, it was very good (just like Dad said)!
PS: Muito Obrigada (many thanks) to Janelle for supporting Our Portugal Journey through Buy Me a Coffee. Your generosity and interest help to keep this publication free to subscribers.
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Until next time…