Much has been said about the traditions of Portuguese confectionery, the pinnacles of which were reached in convents up and down the country. But less has been written about the people who invented those wonders, the women who over the centuries toiled in the kitchen mixing egg and almond and sugar in myriad combinations.
Well, as elsewhere in Europe, Portuguese convents were full of the daughters of the aristocracy, the unmarried surplus women whose fate was to whither away behind closed doors in a routine of prayer, self-efacement and labour. Or was it?
Er… no, not really. Examples abound of nuns who were anything but modest, self-efacing or even pious. King John V had children with at least two nuns, the most famous of whom, the Abbess of the Convent of Odivelas, lived in decadent luxury, with all the trappings of a royal mistress, with titles, properties, annuities and her own lavish quarters with servants which he visited regularly. In fact, it was said that King John V was so religious that all his mistresses were nuns (!).
The most famous Portuguese nun, however, is arguably Mariana Alcoforado, who in the mid 17th century had a torrid affair with a French officer and wrote him five spectacular love letters, so infatuated, eloquent and desperately moving that they became a sensation when they were published in 1669 and remain in print today.
While not all nuns were such passionate lovers like those two, those who came from good families did enjoy a much less austere convent life than those who were simply poor or lacking in connections. So with not much to while their time away with, and with household chores being beneath their condition, the poor nuns must have been bored out of their wits! What to do then? Well, they threw themselves into the kitchens and made expensive and complicated concoctions with the best and most extravagant ingredients they had, obviously. And thus were born such conventual delights as angels’ tummies (papos d’anjo), nun’s belly (barrigas de freira), heavenly cheese (queijinhos do céu, still made today by nuns in the Convent of Montalvo in Constância, and an absolute delicacy), with names that belie their status, but point towards a much more indulgent and temptation-ridden existence than one of devotion and service.
So if it weren’t for these bored nuns, heavenly bacon (toucinho do céu, a personal favourite) would never have been invented, and the world would be an even bleaker place.
Thank goodness there was no Netflix then!