It is one of the most typical sweets in the summer, it has a history linked to a Jewish family coming from Germany in 1935 and there are reasons to know better on the beach.
They are a typically Portuguese business, which many do not know that arrived in the country by the 'hand' of a Jewish family from Germany who took refuge here even before the Second World War.
We recap what is known, with some new information and try to answer the questions… Why Berlin balls and why the success of Berlin balls on the beach???… Why a hot cake from a cold city in a cold country so popular in the hottest place in Europe???… And since when????…
Only part of the answers to these questions are known. The German candy that inspires it is the so-called German Berliner or, in its full name, Berliner Pfannkuchen - known within Berlin, where it originates, just as Pfannkuchen. That same cake that gives rise to the Portuguese Berliner we know today, also inspired the American donut and appears as part of a local tradition in a 1532 cookbook, which became one of the first cookbooks to be printed on the famous printer created by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century.
These little Portuguese fried cakes have their origin marked in the name. They're from Germany. And, according to historian Irene Flunser Pimentel, they were brought to Portugal by a Jewish family that took refuge here at the time of World War II and found in them the extra income they needed in a troubled time.
A decade after they started selling the popular product in Portugal, the Davidsohns already had a commercial establishment in Lisbon that served this delicacy and where people ate them covered in sugar syrup and accompanied by cold tea.
The story is told in Pimentel's 2006 book “Jews in Portugal during World War II”. The protagonist in question is the Jewish refugee Ruth Davidsohn, who was even interviewed by sociologist Christa Heinrich, a collaborator of Pimentel.
In the book, it is reported that young Ruth arrived in Portugal with her sister and parents, coming from Hamburg, from northern Germany, on October 6, 1935, before the beginning of World War II, when Hitler had already been chancellor for two years. The exile to the country will not only be related to advantages in terms of legalization, but also because they already had family in Portugal, namely uncles Lily and Hugo Losser, who worked in the import of automatic chocolate machines.
The historian explained this summer that it is not known for sure if this was the moment of the discovery of the Berlin ball in Portugal "but the period of World War II must have been the one in which the cake was spread in our country".
Pimentel also says about this period: “Jewish refugees or other Germans or Austrians could not work in Portugal and began to carry out more or less clandestine jobs: hawking ties; cooking food for other refugees and also selling cakes to Germans, and not necessarily refugees, who lived in Portugal”.
At that time, the balls were fried just as they are now, but Ruth Davidsohn filled them with berry, strawberry or raspberry compote and not with the typical current egg cream (although there are versions with chocolate cream, carob - in the Algarve - or even strawberry).
Less than a decade after the arrival of the German Davidsohn family there were several commercial establishments in Lisbon that served them to the public. Hungarian music critic and writer Hermann Grab makes reference to a café on Avenida da Liberdade, "where people would sit in the shade of tall trees, eating Berlin balls covered in sugar syrup and accompanied by cold tea", in the book Ruhe auf der Flucht. Everything indicates that the Davidsohn family ended up leaving Portugal and heading to the United States, as was the habit of many Jewish families coming from Germany at that time.
The Ball of Berlin was established in such a way that it became the second or third cake that Portuguese people eat the most.
So why is this cake coming from the cold is so successful in a warm place???… My reason is that “Salt and sugar, sweet and salty, act as a trigger for the palate. Sea salt and sugar in the cake. The beach whets the appetite, and a berlin ball is a solid enough cake to satiate. As for the rest, because they were brought to the beach, from north to south of the country, nobody knows very well. There is a version per head. Either because they were practical. Or because they satiated. Or because they were handy and easy to make."
As for the name "Berlin" associated with the cake, it comes from the origin of the cake that inspires it, the Berliner.