While the pastries of Portugal may not be as famous, or showy, as those of their European cousins, they have a proud and varied heritage of sweetmeats to rival any Parisian cake shop. Indeed the Portuguese princess, Catharine of Braganza is even credited with introducing ‘high tea’- a cuppa and cakes in the late afternoon - to the English.
Originally the love of deserts came from the Moorish occupation and the planting of sugarcane in Maderia in the 15 century. Later the convents and monasteries of Portugal produced large quantities of eggs, whose egg-whites were in demand for starching of their habits and robes, as well as fining local wines to remove impurities. This left large quantities of surplus egg yolks, resulting in the monks and nuns inventing copious sweet desert recipes to use them up.
One of the charms of Portuguese pastries is their wonderful names, mostly linked to the convents where many of them were created. You can find, amongst others, barrigas de freira (nun’s bellies), pao de Deu (bread of God - sweet buns, topped with coconut, that were served warm at our hotel breakfast every morning) papa de anjo (angel's chin) and toucinho do céu (heaven’s lard). With names like that, how could you resist?
No one could seriously contemplate a trip to Lisbon without hopping on Tram 15 along the seafront to Belem to visit the Jerónimos Monastery and eat a famed custard tart.
It is believed that these pastéis de nata were originally created here by Catholic monks in the monastery, before the Liberal Revolution of 1820 saw their production moving to the Casa Pastéis de Belém down the road. And their popularity over the last 200 odd years doesn't seem to have waned. You can almost guarantee, despite the deceptively large interior with its warren of tiled rooms inside, that there will be hordes queuing hungrily on the pavement. The day of our visit was no different, although you can slip the queue for counter service and find your own table indoors if you prefer to sit in to eat.
The tarts were - appropriately, given their origins - divine. Friable pastry cases gently cradling a warm creamy filling just on the point of beginning to curdle (traditionally served like this for the texture) sprinkled thickly with cinnamon and washed down with thick cups of bica.
While there are reports that the tarts served down the road may be even better, it's worth visiting at least once for cakes and coffee during your stay in the White City .
While Belem has its custard tarts, Sintra has its cheesecakes, and again, we couldn't leave without buying a couple of prettily wrapped tubes while on our trip up into the mountains; these are not the quivering slices of confection from across the Pond that most of us are more familiar with, but more little sugar and egg yolk-enriched tarts with the addition of fresh cheese curds. They most reminded me of our own treacle tart, with their dense, tooth-achingly sweet filling. Good in small doses.
After taking a quiet stroll through the steep streets of Alto Barrio on a Sunday morning, we felt well deserving of a little snack. While many bars and restaurants still remain closed on Sunday, a display of cakes and cool drinks, including some honey buns marked as the speciality of the house, lured us through the door of Pastelasria Camoes on Rua do Loreto.
This was a great little spot, crammed with locals catching up over coffee and tourists, like us, randomly pointing to the selection of pastries and snacks in the glass cabinets while the staff patiently tried to explain what they all were. Electing to stand and drink at the counter, we had a great view of all and sundry, the perfect place for some people watching.
The broas de mel turned out to be wonderful, crumbly little cinnamon and honey biscuits, which I subsequently found out originated in Madeira, and are traditionally served at Christmas with a sweet liqueur. In the absence of said liqueur, I had to make do with several cold Super Bocks; at a Euro each, it would have been rude not to. The crispy half sandwich/half pastry ham and cheese toasties are also well worth sampling, despite the veritable snowstorm of crumbs they produce.
The creation Ginjinha or simply Ginja, a liqueur made by infusing sour cherries in aguardente, can, again, be attributed to holy orders. This time the credit goes to Francisco Espinheira, a Galician friar, who found leaving the fruit, plus cinnamon and herbs, in a bottle of spirits produced a potent and tasty drink that was soon to being downed all over town.
The most famous bar, by far, is the tiny spot by the Praça de São Domingos, This hole-in-the-wall features a counter, shelves lined with bottles of ginja, and very little else. Although not a place to linger, it is almost an essential experience to squeeze in and order a shot, before gathering outside to drink it on the (sticky, cherry pit-covered) cobbles. To prolong the holiday feeling (or to pick up something else to collect dust at the back of the cupboard) you can also pick up bottles for around 10 Euros.
Rossio is also home to the celebrated Café Nicola and, directly opposite, Café Suica. Hearing the range of pastries was better at the latter, we chose to call in and pick up a box to take away. While I'm not sure I could accurately tell you what we ordered - The Ewing best described them as; ‘very sugary’, ‘very sugary with dried fruit’, and ‘very sugary with coconut’ – they were all very tasty, if not deliriously sweet.
As well as cakes and pastries, the Portuguese also have a huge variety of deserts, again heavily influenced by eggs and sugar, but also featuring fresh fruit, nuts and chocolate. Our first night in Lisbon, after the obligatory piri piri chicken and chips at Bonjardim, we went wandering the streets of Chiado in search of a late night sugar fix. After, sadly, discovering the famous Ginjingha bar had already shut up shop for the night, we chanced upon O Lirio, a friendly snack bar and pastelería.
Offering a range of cheap meals, pastries and, judging from the posters in the windows, plates of snails and Super Bock. We stuck with the cakes to go with our beer, the Ewing choosing a plate of the famous pastel de nata, while I couldn't resist a slice of the quivering crème caramel in the cabinet, as smooth as a brylcreamed car salesman, with the perfect ratio between the egg yolk-enriched cooked cream and puddle of bitter caramel.
As there aren't so many Nuns around any more there is now a surplus of egg whites after the yolks have been used for creme caramel and custard tarts. Cunningly, these can now be found in another typical Portugese pud, the Molatov. This is very similar to a creme caramel, being cooked in a ring shaped mould in a bain marie, but is made of whisked egg whites and sugar instead. While I didn't have time to try any, I rather like the way they nestled up to each other in the cabinets of pastelrias and restaurants across the town.
A proper summer holiday would scarcely feel complete without a night lost to a local cocktail or two. In Lisbon we made full use of the Brazilian connection by visiting the plaza at Martim Moniz to drink caiprinhas as the sun went down. With the cocktails being 5 Euros a pop (rather eye-watering compared to the price of local beer or wine) they also contained eye-watering amounts of cane spirit, making them a bit of a bargain. Sitting outside, watching the sun set on the Castelo above and listening to the DJs spinning a few tunes may be the perfect way to spend a late summer’s evening.