There is something about Portuguese patisserie that is unmistakably heavenly!
I recently had the opportunity of visiting the 13th exposition of traditional Portuguese Convent Patisserie, ‘Doçes Conventuais’, held in Alcobaça at the end of November. The town of Alcobaça is located in the centre of the country and its magnificent Monastery was the centrepiece for a display and feast of a huge assortment of delicious delicacies made from egg yolks, egg whites, sugar, pastry and almonds all delicately flavoured with cinnamon and spices.
The Alcobaça Monastery was founded by King Afonso Henriques in 1153 and is considered to be one of the first mediaeval Gothic buildings in Portugal. It has always been closely associated with the Portuguese Kings throughout its history and was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1989. There is a beautiful yet sad love story of a Spanish girl called Inês de Castro who came to Portugal in 1340 to work as a maid for Queen Constance of Castile. Prince Pedro who was married to the Queen, fell in love with Inês and after Queen Constance’s death they were said to have secretly married. Inês was eventually murdered at her father-in-law’s request and both she and Prince Pedro are buried in beautifully carved marble coffins at the monastery. A story indeed!
On this particular day, the monastery’s magnificent halls and corridors were resplendent with small stalls of local sweet/pastry producers from around the country each showcasing their delicious wares for everyone to taste and buy.
The patisserie or convent sweets/desserts ‘Doçes Conventuais’ as they are called are characterized by being mostly composed of large amounts of sugar and egg yolks. Prior to the 15th Century, the use of sugar was ostensibly a sign of wealth and taste and was rarely used in cooking but more for medicinal purposes. Honey was used as the main sweetener being an integral part of festive meals however with the discovery and colonization of Brazil and Madeira, sugar cane was grown abundantly and from there began a ‘sugar culture’ where it entered into the gastronomic tradition of monasteries and convents.
The list of so-called convent sweets or desserts is extensive and not only differs from region to region but also depends on the location of the convent or monastery. Examples are: custards, puddings, ‘nun’s bellies’ (barrigas de freira), ‘angel’s chests’ (papo de anjo), French toast, soft eggs, candied egg threads, rice puddings, ‘bacon from heaven’ and of course, the famous custard tarts called Pasteis de Nata and so the list goes on. Their ingredients are simple and it was in between prayer times that nuns and monks would devote their time in preparing ingenious ways of transforming eggs and sugar into intricate delicacies of works of art.
In Portugal any celebration is an excuse to have a sweet treat on the table! For most people a dessert with a meal or cake with afternoon tea makes up part of a daily ritual. Fortunately many of these ‘Doces Conventuais’ are readily available in many parts of Portugal where everyone has the opportunity of enjoying them.
The variety of pastries and desserts that were available for degustation at this exposition was amazing and the prize winning pastry for this year was ‘Trouxas do Mondego’, a heavenly treat straight from the oven which had a filling of egg yolks, sugar, almonds and a candied squash called Chila/Gila all wrapped in filo pastry and lightly dusted with icing sugar. Everyone inevitably wanted to try these delights and the wait was worthwhile.
Below is a slideshow view of the variety of Portuguese patisserie that was available at Alcobaça this year.