When visiting our country, one of the first things you may run into is the pleasant smell of a freshly baked Custard, or as we like to call it around these parts: the Pastel de Nata, or Pastel de Belém as the people from its original location insist. These small bowls of puff pastry, filled with a delicious mixture of egg yolk cream and milk welcome you, as if they were a greeting card into a world of pleasant treats and pastries. A world where there is lots to tell, to see and of course to try.
The Convents: an Unusual Origin
Just as you think you have reached the apex on Portugal’s table of flavours with the Nata, the truth is you have just scraped the tip of the iceberg. The famous custard is but one of many of our country’s traditional desserts, and it is a part of one of the cornerstones of Portuguese cuisine: the so called Doces Conventuais. What are these exactly? The answer is in the name itself, the word ‘doce’ meaning sweet, or in this case pastry, and ‘conventual’ making a reference to their background as recipes that were engineered deep in the many monasteries and convents that pave our country wide.
Indeed the creation of these delightful treats was at the very hands of the various religious orders of nuns, monks and friars, making use of the many ingredients they would have available, such as milk, flour, water and egg yolks. Particularly the latter is one, that up to this day is very much present in most of these sweets in the form of a cream, essentially made by adding sugar into them, and what is the reason for our particular fondness of it, you might be wondering? It’s quite simple, seeing as the egg yolks ran aplenty in the monasteries and convents, so they would not go to waste, they could just be used as a baking ingredient, this is due to the fact that in former times people, especially the monks and the nuns, starched their clothes by smearing a substance essentially made with egg whites over these, a clever trick, in a time where people just had to be creative without the aid of modern machinery.
The art of manufacturing the doces conventuais traces its genesis way back to the earliest days of these orders and it has been perfected throughout the course of time with the introduction of new ingredients from the furthest of places into the national gastronomy. Even though the elaboration of these monastic pastries dates back to hundreds of years into our country’s history, their manufacture and diversification only kicked off around the 1500s, greatly fostered by the introduction of sugar to the convents and monasteries’ inventory. Even though sugar had been around for centuries before that, it was so scarce hat it was seen pretty much as a regal commodity and it was mostly used, surprisingly as it may seem, for medicinal purposes. Even after this ‘sweet salt’, as people from those times sometimes referred to it, began being used by the monks and nuns of the various religious orders, the sweets that they baked with it were on often occasion used as remedies for various ailments. However it would still take a couple of centuries more before we would get to see these precious little treats outside of the cloisters.
The 19th Century was a time of great turmoil in Portugal and it was also an era of critical changes in our society, with a number of reforms being undertaken by a number of different governments, most of them directed at curbing the influence of the Church in the affairs of the realm. Chief among them is the Decree of 1834, signing the extinction of all religious orders within the borders of the realm, that not only prevented these orders from taking in new novices, it evicted them from their places of residence and greatly clamped their funding, a great part of which came from people’s donations.
In order to make a living in the midst of this harsh reality, it is no surprise that a great number of these former monks and nuns turned to baking, as a labour, some of them achieving great success by introducing some of our country’s most well-known and typical pastries of today.
To be continuing…
To learn all about the history and, of course, try some of these delicacies book our Food Tour!