Cakes And Cod: Tasty Traditional Christmas Food In Portugal
By Julie Dawn Fox
Vibrant candied fruit gleams like jewels on rings of golden brioche in Portuguese bakeries throughout December. Although Portuguese Christmas cake, called bolo rei (king cake), may resemble a crown, its symbolism goes far deeper. Along with the tradition of eating simply cooked yet delicious chunks of bacalhau (salted cod) for Christmas dinner, for most Portuguese families Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
Bolo Rei, the cake of kings
Three kings came bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus and this cake represents each of those offerings. The crystallised fruits echo the myrrh while the very scent of the cake evokes frankincense. The golden crust of the brioche dough signifies the gold.
Now firmly established as part of a Portuguese Christmas, this version of bolo rei originates in France. Luis XIV ordered a special cake to be created to celebrate New Year’s Day and King’s Day (6th January). After the French Revolution in 1789, of course, anything associated with royalty was prohibited but local bakeries knew they were on to a winner with the recipe so they simply renamed the cake and carried on selling it.
Bolo rei suffered a similar existential crisis here in Portugal. Confeitaria Nacional bakery began producing them in Lisbon around 1870 using a Parisian recipe and the cakes quickly became popular, reaching Porto bakeries in 1890. When Portugal ousted its monarchy in 1910, they became known as bolos de Natal (Christmas cakes) but over time the original name came back into use.
Traditionally, these cakes used to contain a dried broad bean and a small gift or coin. The person who got the bean would pay for the following year’s cake while the one who found the gift would have good luck for the coming year. You won’t find either in your bolo rei nowadays – these additions were banned by the EU.
Although turkeys have started making an appearance in Portuguese supermarkets and on dinner tables at Christmas time, Christmas dinner for most Portuguese families centres around bacalhau (dried, salted cod). The tradition stems from the Middle Ages and lies in part with the Christian notion of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve in order to purify body and soul. It could also have something to do with saving the more expensive meat dish for the 25th.
Whatever the original reason, if you join a family Christmas meal in Portugal on December 24th, expect to be eating bacalhau com todos, or another cod dish, with potatoes, cabbage and lashings of olive oil. In the north of Portugal or the Azores islands, you may find baked or stewed octopus served instead of cod.
Other Christmas foods in Portugal
Christmas Day itself is usually spent visiting family and friends and tucking into another hearty meal of lamb, kid or possibly turkey. If you can find room for them, this is a chance to sample other typical desserts such as arroz doce (rice pudding) and sonhos de Natal, a kind of light doughnut.
A personal favourite of mine is the rabanada, a Portuguese version of French toast. You soak slices of bread in a mixture of milk, sugar, cinnamon and port wine then coat them in beaten egg and fry them. Delicious!