Sister Sweets – Part Two

8 Jan 2011 Blog

Part Two-

On Part One, I wrote about a Portuguese treat called Barriguinha de Freira. Now, on we move to the lady who makes it

Hello Monica! I have been trying to find you for the past 15 years!

On a typical sunny Rio afternoon, I park my car on a hilly cobblestone street in Cosme Velho, a traditional neighborhood known for its colonial-styled Portuguese houses, and arrive at Monica’s house.

In the powder room I see a vintage Portuguese sink, mounted with hand painted Portuguese tiles. I knew I was on to something interesting. As we sat in the living room, I noticed that every single object displayed in the house was part of a unique collection, all related to Portugal.

Carioca by birth, Monica lives and breathes Portuguese culture, foods, and specially sweets. For the past 25 years, she has been making the finest Barriguinha de Freira. According to her, she and her partner – more in a second, are the only makers of this precious sweet in the whole country!  (I was right – all those delis, all the wedding parties, it all came from Monica’s kitchen. Still, I wonder if one travels to Pelotas – the capital of the Portuguese pastries in the south of Brazil- wouldn’t we find another version?)

Monica learned the recipe years ago and wanted to explore the art of Portuguese pastry. When she married a Portuguese man, the couple moved to Lisbon for 4 years, and she devoted her time to the studies of convents sweets. “In Portugal, the sweet is called lerias and Barriga de Freira, depending on the region, might even refer to a different kind of sweet”, she says.

Monica doesn’t have a store or a typical business model. She, like many other talented women, feeds an industry that moves millions of Reais(that’s our Brazilian currency) every year known as “ informal economy”. She bakes Portuguese pastries for parties and events.

With only 3 people on staff, Monica runs the business from her garage. She and her Portuguese partner Manuela Arraes mix, fill, fold, and wrap thousands of sweets every day. There isn’t one single weekend of the year that Monica isn’t jammed with orders. Now remember, we are talking here about parties for hundreds of people. On average, an order is for 300 to 400 barriguinhas. In a busy season, production can reach 5,000 sweets per weekend .

Her business survived the best and the worst of economic crises. The secret? Quality, she says adding – “ Even during Plano Collor, I didn’t change the recipe to keep the flavor. “ (The Collor Plan was the name of a series of economical reforms during the presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello between 1990- 1993. In order to curb inflation, one of its strategies was to hold money from personal bank accounts; it was a huge fiasco leading millions of small businesses to bankruptcy.)

Toucinho do Céu, Rocambole de Laranja, Bala de Ovos, Pastel Santa Clara, and Barriguinha de Freira are the 5 pillars of their business, but bariguinha is the top seller.

Barriguinha de Freira is shaped like a half moon, but the filling is so pumped that it resembles the belly of a nun (a little questionable, I agree). The dough is white and paper thin, made from rice paper (which is made from flour and water) and the filling is prepared with egg yolks, sugar syrup, butter, and vanilla extract.

Bala de Ovos (Egg Yolk Candy) has a similar filling, but is rolled into a golf ball shape, dipped in caramel, and wrapped in a cellophane paper, just like a candy.

Pastel Santa Clara is a thin rectangle strudel dough, also filled with a similar egg yolk filling.

Prices range from RS$ 2.5 for barriguinha de freira, RS$ 2.0 for bala de ovos and RS$ 2.8 for pastel. Just multiply that by 5,000 per week! Not a bad way to make a living, huh?

Like the competition between the convents back at 15th and 16th centuries, where nuns refused to exchange recipes, Monica keeps hers locked in a safe. I was no novice. I knew that asking her was absolutely in vain.

But I also knew that to take my obsession for Portuguese sweets and turn into an educated understanding on how it all came to be, I would need to get close to the source. And so I did. I sat on the couch and listened carefully to Monica, while she told me the interesting story behind the famous Portuguese Convents Sweets.

Stay tuned for part three!

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