When you’re in Portugal at some point you’re likely to come across the words doces conventuais – this means “conventual sweets”.
Say what? Sweets from the convent? Yes! And no.
Fear not: I’ll explain everything!
Centuries ago, convents and monasteries had to be self-sufficient (that included having chickens) and in the Middle Ages Portugal happened to be producing lots and lots of eggs. Why? Because egg-whites were used in the process of clearing wine and to stiffen clothes (like nun’s habits and the ruffles in rich people’s clothes). Remember: there was no ye olde ironing board.
There was a huge amount of leftover yolks. So, nuns and friars thought it was a good idea to use them to make sweets:
- they could sell them and make some extra money;
- they were nice presents for visitors (rich visitors, that is);
- they had easy access to plenty of sugar and spices coming from Asia and Africa because of the Discoveries;
- they added some things they already had, like lemons, almonds and Port;
- apparently it was also a creativity exercise thinking of names for these sweets and that’s why you’ll find names like barrigas de freira (nun’s bellies), toucinho do céu (heaven’s bacon), papos de anjo (angel’s chins) and orelhas de abade (abbot’s ears).
However, in 1820, with the Liberal Revolution in Portugal, religious orders were expelled from the country.
So what happened to all those recipes? Some were sold (like the Pastéis de Belém); some were already well known. How? Rich families would usually send their daughters to convents for education
also keeping them away from men until they married, so they learned the recipes.
Well, hold on a second! Portuguese travelled all over the world and no one else has anything similar to these sweets? Of course they do! Remember we were the first Western country to reach Japan! 😉