Portugal is on the very edge of Europe and often overlooked in favour of its more vocal neighbour, Spain. But this country has so much to offer to the visitor. Striking landscapes of Alentejo flatter the eye, generous hospitality warms the soul, and gastronomy seems to be a well-exercised hobby practised by all.
The Alentejo is an unspoilt and relatively unknown region of Portugal nestled next to the more celebrated Algarve. Its rolling hills, boulder-strewn pastures, groves of cork and olive trees and vineyards tempt one with the notion that good things to eat might not be far away.
In fact good food has been central to life in Portugal and Alentejo for thousands of years and was brought to the height of refinement in the Middle Ages in monasteries and convents. Arab and Jewish traders imported cinnamon from the East; almonds have always been in abundance; sugar was often a dowry paid when a novice entered the convent, as there was plenty of sugar coming from the Portuguese colonies. Egg whites were used to starch habits as well as for clearing wine, which left a surfeit of yolks. All the ingredients were available to create delicious sweets.
One might conjure an idyllic vision of plump, elderly, black-habited ladies with religious inclinations dividing their earthly hours between their devotions and a nice bit o’ cookin’ – but it seems there were other pursuits on the curriculum.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that young nuns and monks would look for romantic liaisons. Many of them didn’t sign up for religious orders following a spiritual awakening, seeing the heavenly light, or through divine inspiration. It was more often due to practical necessity. What does one do with the youngest son when big brothers have taken the land and taken up arms – the military being the second best option to staying home and swelling the ranks of the landed gentry? Send the boy to a monastery. What will become of an unmarried daughter? Off to the convent with her. There is a story about Sister Mariana Alceforado who lived during the 16th century. It is said that Mariana fell in love with a French army officer, Noël Bouton, and when he returned to France she wrote love letters to him. Later the letters were found and translated, and eventually became internationally published with the title ‘Letters of the Portuguese Nun’.
But between passionate interludes, these nuns not only prayed but took pleasure in devising ingenious ways of using a relatively few basic ingredients to make signature desserts. Convents became famous for particular sweets that the nuns and monks sold as a means of supplementing their incomes. Pão de Rala looks like nothing more than a loaf of rustic bread but it has an amusing history. It was a speciality of the nuns of the Convento do Calvário in Évora. The name and shape of this famous cake have royal connections: King Sebastian visited the convent but, it being a poor order, they could only offer him olives, water and ‘thin bread’ (pão de rala). These days this Pão is constructed of an outer skin of almond-based paste with a filling of vibrant orange egg yolks, sugar, almonds and pumpkin. The outside is dusted with flour and browned to add an authentic-looking crust.
Pasteis de toucinho is another popular small cake. It’s made with pork fat: that might at first sound rather strange until one remembers that lard is often found in pastry partnered with butter. There is suet, too, which is organ fat found in traditional Christmas minced meat. Pasteis de toucinho has a richness from the lard, but fear not, my dubious reader, these treats taste nothing like a bacon sandwich.
But let us consider Portuguese tarts. There are many tarts in Portugal but there is only one that every tourist will crave – probably the only tart to be included on a globetrotter’s bucket list. It’s ubiquitous across Portugal and in every pastry shop around the world that might advertise itself as ‘Portuguese’. It’s the Portuguese Custard Tart or, to give its local name, pastéis de nata. These tarts are loved on every continent and particularly where Portugal has had colonies or trading interests, which include Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa in India, Malacca in Malaysia, and Macau in China.
It is believed that pastéis de nata were created centuries ago by monks at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in the parish of Santa Maria de Belém, in Lisbon. In fact in Portugal they are sometimes also called Pastéis de Belém. Following the closure of many of the convents and monasteries after the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the production of pastéis de nata transferred to what is now the Casa Pastéis de Belém nearby. The former monks wanted to continue to produce the tarts and so patented and registered the recipe, while contracting the Antiga Confeiteira de Belém to produce them. The secret was given to only five chefs, who guarded this original recipe under the Oficina do Segredo (Office of Secrets).
At first glance these are quite rustic creations. The pastry is somewhat free-form, the filling tends to look a little overcooked. But it’s that combination of texture and taste that has assured the success of this tart down the centuries. The case is a type of puff pastry that retains a crunch when baked. The filling is rich with cream but light and flavourful. It seems such a simple concept but it’s worth seeking delicious authenticity.
The Alentejo is accessible, charming and relatively unspoilt. It is something of a culinary paradise, offering dishes that have remained unchanged for generations. Its sweets are a reflection of its history and culture, and are finding their place in the lexicon of European culinary treasures.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018