During the Christmas season, Portuguese pastry stores transform many tons of flour, sugar, eggs, port wine, and candied fruit into the popular king’s cake (bolo rei).
Bolo rei was introduced in Portugal in the second half of the 19th century by Confeitaria Nacional, a pastry store in downtown Lisbon. It was based on France’s “gateaux des rois,” a royal cake forbidden during the French revolution until pastry chefs renamed it the “people’s cake” (gateaux des sans culottes).
Over time, Confeitaria Nacional’s recipe was imitated and adapted, and bolo rei became an integral part of Portuguese culture. So much so that, when the monarchy was abolished in 1910, the Portuguese parliament renamed it Republic’s cake. But the awkward name never caught on.
Pastry stores used to hide two objects inside the cake: a gift (a trinket or, in some cases, a gold coin) and a dried fava bean. The gift has been eliminated but the fava bean is still included. According to tradition, whoever gets it has to buy the next cake.
The custom of hiding a fava bean inside a cake originated in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. The person who found the fava bean became king of the Saturnalia and served as the festival’s master of ceremonies.
If you’re in Portugal during the Christmas season, make sure you try some bolo rei. It’s a sweet piece of European history.
The writer Christopher Hitchins summarized his first impressions of Lisbon with the words, “Mediterranean though it can feel, Portugal is the only European country that has the Atlantic Ocean lapping around in its capital city.’’
We can sense the energy of the Atlantic on the iconic Cais das Colunas, a quay adorned by two columns in Terreiro do Paço. The undulation of the Tagus river echoes the waves of the ocean beyond. The columns mark Portugal as the point of departure and the sea as our destiny.
Oporto residents have been smug since 1933. That’s the year when Arcadia, a wonderful artisanal chocolate maker, opened its doors in that northern city. In France, chocolatiers compete for the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France and the winners receive plenty of fame and recognition. But these are not the ways of Portugal, where we often keep quiet about our great things. So, Arcadia remained under the radar for decades.
In 2010, Arcadia opened a shop in Lisbon and the residents of the capital could finally find out what they’d been missing. There’s a lot to catch up with, from dark chocolate made with São Tomé cocoa, to port wine bonbons, beautiful chocolate roses, and delicious “cat tongues.” No wonder Oporto residents were so smug!
Arcádia, Rua do Almada, 63, Porto, tel. 22 200 15 18, Av. de Roma 14D, Lisboa, tel. 21 840 8670, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for the Arcadia website. You can also buy Arcadia chocolates at Portfolio, a store in the Lisbon airport. Click here for their website.
Bacalhau (cod) is a fish with a bland taste. But, once it is salted and dried in the sun, it becomes the perfect foil for garlic and olive oil. The Portuguese have enjoyed salted cod for more than two centuries. Lucas Rigaud, chef at the court of D. Maria I, included two cod recipes in his 1780 cookbook.
In 1778, Queen D. Maria eliminated the cod sales tax to help the fisherman and the poor. When the Queen returned from a boat ride on the Tagus river, she was greeted by ships decorated with garlands, overflowing with people cheering to the sound of music and fireworks. D. Maria was so touched, that she did the unthinkable. With tears in her eyes, the Queen sent away her coach and walked unguarded amid the crowd to the royal palace in Terreiro do Paço.
If you’re visiting Portugal, give salted cod a try. There’s something truly unique about food that can bring a distant queen so close to her people.