Gastronomic Curiosities


Conventual Sweets

            Sweets were always present in the portuguese Convents and Monasteries, of course quite different, from what we know today. Before sugar, cakes were sweetened with honey, technique introduced by muslims and still used in the Maghreb region. It was only in the XVIth century that sugar became one of the main ingredients allowing nuns and maids to create different syrups.

            It’s a known fact that conventual sweets have a huge amount of yolks and of course, sugar and almonds, as key ingredients.

            Regarding the egg whites, most of them were exported and used to iron clothes or as a purifying element on the wine industry.

            In the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries Portugal would become one of the biggest egg producer in Europe.

            However with so many egg whites being used for different things, the yolks normally went to the trash or were given to pigs.

            The huge amount of yolks that existed and the sugar, that was arriving from Brazil, were the perfect combination to create and improve the sweets that were being made in convents. It’s not hard to understand that the names of the sweets were given by nuns or made inside convents. Hence the origin of, for instance: papos-de-anjo (angel’s belly), barriga-de-freira (nun´s belly), beijos-de-freira (nun´s kisses) or toucinho-do-céu (bacon from heaven).


            The origin of this sausage seems to be associated to the portuguese Jews in way to escape Inquisition.

            Since they don’t eat pork, Jews didn’t had the portuguese tradition of producing the typical sausages and that, small thing, was enough for the inquisitors to be able to distinguish who was Christian and who was not, since they would be the only ones not smoking the pork sausages.

            In the end of the XVth century and beginnings of the XVIth there was a big Jewish community in Trás-os-Montes, that had arrived from Castela (Spain), where they had been expelled buy the Catholic kings (Isabel and Fernando) in 1492.

            To evade the Inquisition, Jews, or in this case, New-Christians invented the alheira, a sausage that was made with all sort of meat except pork (chicken, duck, rabbit or veal) with bread, olive oil and lots of garlic. This last ingredient gave name to the sausage (garlic in portuguese is alho).

            This sausage also started being made by Christians, but they added pork meat to theirs.

            That’s why the alheira is traditionally linked to Trás-os-Montes (North of Portugal) and it’s from this region that comes one of the most famous alheira, the alheira of Mirandela.


            The tempura recipe, that consists on frying vegetables or shellfish in a light batter, is portuguese.

            It were the portuguese Jesuits that took this way of cooking to the Far East, especially Japan.

            During Lent, unable to eat meat, the missionairies from the Society of Jesus, living in Japan, opted to eat vegetables and shellfish, properly seasoned and wrapped in a batter.

            Moreover, the word “tempura” as it’s origins on the portuguese word “tempero” (meaning seasoning).

            The recipe started being adopted by the japanese that adjusted it to their own gastronomy.


            According to reports francesinha was brought by a portuguese emmigrant, who lived quite some time in France, and it’s inspiration was probably the “croque monsieur” (sandwich made with cheese and ham grilled or fryed).

            The francesinha is made with bread and a lot of different meats (ham, different sausages, pork or cow), covered in cheese and a hot spice sauce on top of it.

            It’s maker wanted the sandwich, as spicy as the french ladies, though it’s name (francesinha means literally little french girl).             The connoisseurs say that the secret is in the sauce. One knows that it has onions, garlic, tomatoes, beer, white wine, Port wine,…the rest? The rest it’s a secret.

by Ricardo Andrade

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