Something sweet

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!

dom rodrigo
Dom Rodrigo, typical of the Algarve.

Centuries ago, convents and monasteries had to be self-sufficient (which 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 back then.

Toucinho do céu, i.e., heaven’s bacon!

That meant they were left with a huge amount of leftover yolks. So, nuns and friars thought it would be 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, ofcourse);
  • 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. 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).

pudim abade de priscos
Pudim Abade de Priscos, easily found in the North.Source:

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), but some were already well known because rich families would usually send their daughters to convents for education while also keeping them away from men until they married, so they ended up learning the recipes.

pão de rala
Pão de rala, from the Alentejo region.
pão de ló alfeizerão
Pão de ló de Alfeizerão – difficult name, great cake.
Fios de ovos (egg’s strands). These babies travelled aaaall the way to Asia!

Several of these sweets made their way to other parts of the globe – but that’s a subject for another post!



  1. Fascinating information… and the names for these sweet delicacies, such as 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) are as interesting as the food itself! .

  2. I love these types of cake. The Pao de Lo is a particular favourite, especially when the egg filling is delightfully molten! 😀
    And yes – sooooooooo many eggs in Portuguese sobremesas!!!

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