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The History of Conventual Sweets

One of the most incredible traditions in Portugal is, without a doubt, that of convent sweets. The basic ingredients of this confectionery are egg yolks, almonds, sugar and flour. Combined in different ways and in different proportions, each of these products shapes different sweets. All delicious and full of history!!! Before the convent confectionery, sweets did not contain sugar because Portugal still did not import sugar. With the colonization of Madeira Island, sugar received special attention, with sugar cane being cultivated. In addition, the Arab influence brought honey and almonds to desserts. The convents, which are the point of origin for most Portuguese sweets, did not use the yolks much, and the whites were mostly used, both to make hosts and other sweets. Ah, egg whites were also widely used as a purifier in the production of white wine and also for ironing clothes. For these reasons, they ended up not being as unctuous as we know today, you know, the doughs and fillings were drier, even using the lard to give it a bigger binder and shine when the dessert baked. Over time, sugar became more traded around the world. The consequence of this???… The women and nuns who stayed in the convents began to incorporate it into their sweets. With this new ingredient, the desserts were increasingly diversified, while others were improved, creating the tradition of convetual sweets.

Pork lard continues to be used to this day in the preparation of most of these sweets, as well as egg yolks, sugar and almonds. The recipes for most of these desserts are family secrets and are passed down orally from generation to generation. I confess that I find it a pity that they are not written down, as oral histories tend to come to an end when traditions do not follow a continuity. Still, it's exciting to know how much the Portuguese people care about the sweets, the recipes and the whole story behind it!!! Convents and monasteries sold the sweets to try to improve the difficult financial situation they were going through. Therefore, the conventual confectionery was spreading throughout the country and being passed on to families who helped these places in the preparation of these desserts.

Most of the convent sweets vary according to each region of the country. In Vila Real, for example, the most typical sweet there are rooster crests (cristas de galo). Another super regional sweet are the queijadas and pillows (travesseiros), adored by the Portuguese as well as by all the tourists who pass through Sintra. Eggs and Meias Luas Charutos (cigars) are other Portuguese delicacies worth mentioning and follow this same recipe style, with egg yolks, sugar and almonds never failing to form part of the dessert mix. Oh, and the famous pastel de Belém???…They are also convent sweets. Created by the Jerónimos Monastery, they were a way of earning money to maintain the place. The production of Pastéis de Belém started in 1837 and the recipe is the same to this day. So, do you feel like tasting these Portuguese wonders???…

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