Editor’s note: When Ryan and I visited Obidos in 2003, we had found a quaint little bed and breakfast run by a woman named Melana. Weary and hungry from traveling with our large backpacks filled with wine, we sat down in her living room decorated more like a cozy ski lodge than a traditional Portuguese home and were each served a glass of Ginja. Brilliant red in color with rich and pungent cherry aromas, we fell in love with this drink. Beyond its sweet and delicious flavor, we learned that it is customary to serve it to guests upon entry into your home. We bought a bottle that day and savored it for over a year with friends as they visited our little Minneapolis flat. Although this beverage is not easy to find, if you are in Portugal, I highly suggest you pick up a bottle, or if you have already tried it, please let us know if there was a label that you particularly enjoyed!
Most people are familiar with Ruby Port, the fortified wine which inherited its name from its lovely red color, renowned for its ripe fruit flavors and sweetness that pairs perfectly with the dark, bitter flavors of chocolate. So what if I told you that there existed another delicious and unctuous wine that still marries beautifully with chocolate but is indigenous to a small little Portuguese town in the core of Estremadura? Interested? Well, then look no further than the medieval town of Obidos, home to the sweet cherry liquor, Ginja.
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Just a 45-minute drive outside of Lisbon, Obidos sits at the crest of a hill, surrounded by its very historical and picturesque castle, dating back to the 13th century when it was given as a gift to Queen Isabel de Aragon. It is also the only area where the prized Morello cherry trees can grow to make the best tasting Ginja liquor. Ginja or Ginjinha (like John or Johnny) is made from these pressed and macerated cherries picked during the spring and summer, mixed with sugar, fortified and stored in both wood and stainless steel tanks for several months. It is fortified either with aguardente or the local neutral spirit, ‘Liqueur de Ginja’, to a moderately low alcohol level of 18%. This makes it a bit easier on your head than Port and it is actually slightly less sweet than it as well. The tradition in Obidos is to drink the bright red Ginja in little dark chocolate cups that you later eat, savoring the bittersweetness off your chocolate stained fingers! For an even bigger chocolate kick, try the chocolate Ginja, mixed with at least 15% chocolate powder and drink chilled. Dark chocolate is the only chocolate used, as I was told that milk chocolate with Ginja would be too overpoweringly sweet. The regular Ginja is sold with or without macerated cherries in the bottle, but I prefer to have them with as a little surprise at the end of my bottle.
The two times I have visited Obidos, I have gone to taste Ginja at the same café/store and was happy to find out this time that they happen to be one of the 4 major producers of the best Ginja here! I talked to João, one of the managers from Licors de Sanguinhal, who explained that their Ginja is actually a certified artesanal Ginja, which means it’s made from 100% Morello cherries and can only use the “Liqueur de Ginja’ for fortification, thereby providing a much silkier flavor. To improve quality, they import pure, Belgian dark chocolate to use both in their Chocolate Ginja and the chocolate Ginja filled cups. And as if you didn’t think we had enough chocolate already, we enjoyed both our chocolate cups of Ginja and Chocolate Ginja with a nice, big slice of Belgian chocolate cake. The people of Obidos enjoy Ginja with chocolate to such an extent that they’ve founded the annual International Chocolate Festival – an event I have already marked on my calendar for this year!
“Are there any other foods that would be good to pair Ginja with besides chocolate?“, I asked, daydreaming of other sweet possibilities. He replied that Ginja is great to use in mixed drinks and even added to Port! He also mentioned that it is a great compliment on top of fruit salads, and of course, drizzled over vanilla ice cream. Ahhhh, so much rich and memorable sweetness! And on a cloud of bliss, João ended our visit by highlighting that, “Studies have been ‘proven’ that the Morello cherries made into Ginja are quite healthy and can even lower cholesterol!” Now that’s a liquor worth your love and adoration, not to mention a trip to Portugal!