With such a rich variety of confectionery all over the country, Portugal’s bakers and amateur (in name if not in skill) pastry chefs must have struggled to come up with relevant names for their creations over the centuries. But armed with as much esprit as techical skill, they bequeathed us some deliciously named puddings and sweets, ranging from the purely descriptive to the simply cryptic or downright funny. Here we describe but a few.
Let’s start with those that just reflect their geographical origin: Pastéis de Belém – from the eponymous neighbourhood in Lisbon, better known as Pastéis de Nata and thought by many (wrongly, in our view) to be the only good thing that ever came out of Portugal; Clarinhas de Fão, which are a personal childhood favourite from the village of Fão in Northern Portugal, and well worth a detour if you are in the area; Brisas do Lis, named after the river Lis in Leiria; or the multiple variations of Pão de Ló, a simple unflavoured sponge cake that can be found mainly in northern Portugal, and which varies in consistency from dry and delicious to raw and delicious. Famous iterations include those from Arouca, Margaride, Ovar (the sophistication of which Giles Coren failed to appreciate), Rio Maior, Soure.
Then there are those that describe their actual shape. The most obvious are Ss from Alpiarça, literally in the shape of an S and from the village of Alpiarça, so they win points in two categories. But there are also Stretchies (Esticadinhos, loosely translated) from Mangualde, and Cornucopias (the meaning should be obvious) from Alcobaça. And of course Sintra Pillows (Travesseiros de Sintra). All yummy to die for, but we are partial towards the Ss from Alpiarça, which are delicious with tea.
We already wrote about those that referred to the fantasies that nuns indulged in when baking, so now on to the baffling ones…
Growing up, the Gold Rush was sometimes spoiled with the unusual Sweet Sardines (Sardinhas Doces de Trancoso), deepfried dough tubes with an egg jam filling that are dipped in chocolate. They are delicious, for sure, and have a longish shape, twisted at both ends to contain the filling, which might, if one is a bit tipsy, resemble the tail of a fish. But how anybody thought of naming them sardines for all posterity remains a bit of a head scratcher, for there is nothing more off-putting (to us at least) than the idea of fish for pudding. But hey, who are we to judge?? The plot thickens when one thinks that they come from Trancoso, far from the coast and, like most of inland Portugal, a meat-lovers’ paradise. But we reiterate: they taste really good, and it’s a shame they aren’t better known.
Next comes Rotten Cake (Bolo Podre), actually a rather simple and tasty sponge found more or less everywhere, and much better than its name would imply. Talk about managing expectations! Did the creator have a self-sabotaging syndrome? Did someone accidentally lock themselves in the larder and survive on this cake for weeks, eating it even after it had rotted, before a glorious rescue? Did someone attempt to make it with whiffy ingredients? Who knows?
Finally, and it is impossible to think about this one without having an inner laugh: Lions of Rio Maior (Leões de Rio Maior). In the 1970s, in the village of Rio Maior in the central Portuguese plains, a mysterious feline creature, described by those who saw it as a lion (a LION!!), terrorised farmers and residents for some months. It stalked the area, killed cattle, and mobilised local police and the national guard. It evaded capture long enough to make it to the national news and become a local myth… Well, it turns out that the wildcat was actually a lion that had escaped from a circus!!! It was ultimately hunted, and the episode inspired a local baker to create a pastry in its memory. Hence the unusual name. RIP Simba!