Portuguese Sweets: Inside the Convents

Portuguese Sweets

Portuguese Sweets: Inside the Convents is an article for those who love all things portuguese. Growing up in Brazil, I was destined to love them and it was so easy to get hooked to the blissfully rich taste of all eggy pastries.

Portuguese Sweets Inside the Convents
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.

The history of Portuguese Sweets takes us back Inside the Convents of the 18th century. Until the 15th century, sugar was used as medicine sold in streets markets. The Arabs living in Portugal slowly introduced a whole other way of applying sugar into food, creating what today we call desserts. In Portugal, it all started with syrups, which, to this day, is the base for its sweets.

The convents played a crucial role in Portuguese society. There weren’t any hotels back then, so when kings and queens traveled, they’d stay at convents. Even when convents were guest free, it was a place for hosting the birth of a new prince, a royal marriage, the king’s or queen’s birthday, a religious celebration, and any other reason to party. It was the beginning of the cultural exchange.

Savory was in the realm of the priests and sweets in the hands of the nuns. This social activity helped develop all things culinary, especially sweets, turning convents into the mega gastronomic institutions of the time. Savory food wasn’t as nicely presented as it is today, giving sweets even more prestige and representing a symbol of luxury.

Poultry was part of the religious diet, so raising chickens was mandatory for all convents. Birds were used in soups, stews, and roasts; eggs, while also used in savory, were more abundant than any institution would need.

Egg whites were used to iron clothes and clarify wine. What to do with the yolks, then? Sweets, sweets, and more sweets! Take yolks in one direction, mix it with syrup and vanilla extract, and you achieve the likes of custards, puddings, and candies. Take it in another, and you get cakes and candies.

Pastel Santa Clara
Pastel Santa Clara

In addition to the role of event facility, convents played another critical social function – the place of last resort for classy ladies in trouble. Today, if you’re a wreck, you go to a therapist; back then, convents were the perfect solution for families to gracefully send their single daughters who couldn’t find a husband or ladies who misbehaved.

These sisters might have undernourished their flesh and minds, but not their stomachs. The truth is very few were interested in religion per se, and instead of devoting themselves to God, they dedicated their skills to the big and well-equipped kitchens of their “new homes,” honing their incredible talents as dessert makers (today we would call them pastry chefs) and passing this gift along generations of cooks disguised as nuns.

Such was the institution of nunneries, other feminine arts developed around the same time and place – like sewing, embroidering, painting porcelain, and many other skills that today are known to the world as Portuguese commodities.

By the end of the century, Portuguese Sweets: Inside the Convents became so traditional, exuberant, and competitive that each had a reputation for producing the best type of a particular sweet. Nuns started selling their sweets in religious fairs and celebrations as commerce progressed, enjoying its monetary profits. To honor these celebrations, most traditional Portuguese sweets have holy names, such as Toucinho do Céu, Papos de Anjo, Pastel Santa Clara, Abade de Priscos, and so forth.

Barriga de Freira
One of my favorite Portuguese Sweets Inside the Covents is Barriguinha de Freira, translated – “little nun’s belly.

” This treat is somewhat popular and not so easy to find. When I lived in Rio, it was sold at a few scattered delis, and every time I’d see one, I’d buy it. It was a must in parties, especially at weddings.

Get the recipe for a very unique Portuguese Sweet Inside the Convents: Pudim Abade de Priscos



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