Picture by kind permission: Abigail Hedderwick
Long before Portugal´s monasteries and convents were turned into luxury hotels, they were places of high living. William Beckford the English travel writer who visited Portugal in 1793, and settled here for a while, was shocked by the "perpetual gourmandising" of the monks, wondering at their diet of "rarities and delicacies of distant countries, exquisite sausages, potted lampreys and strange messes from Brazil!!!"His writings are full of "description of scenes and manners".
Portugal boasts more than 200 varieties of biscuits, cakes and pastries known collectively as doces (sweets). With names as quaint as papa de anjo (angel's chin), they're fun to get your mouth around in every sense.Each sweet delight is an integral part of Portuguese culture and history.
These sweets have been an important part of Portuguese culture for centuries. Although popular in medieval times (honey was the sweetener), the arrival of sugar in the 15th century, brought by the Arabs, quickly crystallised the sweets industry, especially among the aristocracy, who could afford it.
However, it was the nuns and monks from Portugal's convents and monasteries who produced some of the country's best-known recipes. The popularity of doces conventuais - literally "conventual sweets", which include biscuits and pastries - soon spread through the provinces. Conventual sweets sprang up through habits of a different kind. To protect family virtue and fortunes, wealthy families sent their daughters to the local convents. These well-off religious institutions served not only as places of faith but as accommodation options for important visitors, including royalty, and became gastronomic centres (the idea perhaps being the more one ate, the more one prayed). With time to kill, the chaste females flirted with recipes, using eggs from the convent's chickens and other ingredients available to them. One nun did stray when she fell in love at first sight with a French officer whom she spotted from her convent window. Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, five passionate letters to her man published in the 1600s, is the result of her non-consummated lust; today, the letters are assumed to be fiction but the romantic tale is a great drawcard for the town of Beja.
In the 1800s, when the clergy and workers were expelled during the liberal revolution and convents and monasteries were shut down, these recipes found their way into local padarias and pastelarias. In Beja for example, Casa de Cha Maltesinhas, a small back street bakery specialisies in conventual sweets, their toucinho do ceu comes highly recommended. The centennial coffee shop Luiz da Rocha is a true institution of the city of Beja, and an undeniable reference of Alentejan conventual sweets . The cupcakes of curd, backpacks of eggs, sweet almond, or the irresistible chicken pies are part of a showcase of delicacies that belong to the heritage of many generations of Alentejo gastronomy. Trouxas de ovos,( sugared egg yolks) plus other less conventional creations including the porquinhos de doce, literally "sweet little pigs", made of marzipan and shaped as pigs and piglets. ( a guilt-free choice for vegetarians).Luiz de Rocha has sweetened the lips of generations of Bejense and turistas alike.The nuns nevertheless "pigged out" in more ways than one. Pork, up there on the list of the world's quirkiest cake ingredients, was used frequently in recipes. Adventurous nuns and monks added to the Portuguese culinary call, such delights as pudim do Abade de Priscos (a creme caramel prepared with pork lard, port and spices) and toucinho do ceu (literally, "heaven's lard", or "bacon from heaven" a small almond cake with a touch of, you guessed it, Porky Pig). Even the monks were in on the act: you can imagine them chuckling away, while concocting their own egg-based creations, including barrigas de freiras - nuns' bellies. Culinary horizons can be expanded eating your way through the medieval history of Portugal and indulging in some sinful treats. After all, a porky belly is nothing a few Our Fathers, Hail Marys, or a few months at the gym won't cure.
Still keeping the theme Iberian I am dying to try a phenomemon that I have heard about, but as yet haven´t had the chance to experience first hand. The order of the Claridad nuns ( Poor Clares) have a convent in Ronda Spain, and they sell their homebaking through a revolving hatch (so you can't see them)...this was featured on the recent Jamie Oliver in Andalucia programme.You place your money on a sort of lazy susan, or in this context shall we call it a lazy nun.The wheel rotates and in return your conventual treats appear.This seems to be quite commonplace in a lot of Andalucian convents so check it out.
Other conventual recipes that make me chuckle -
St Claras turnovers
Prisco´s parish priest pudding
Friar John´s delight
I wonder if Stephen Sondheim has ever had a taste of things conventual.
it makes you wonder when Sweeney Todd enquired -
Haven’t you got poet or something like that?
No you see the trouble with poet is how do you know it´s deceased - Try the priest