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Sweet traditions in Coimbra, Portugal

With a history of more than twenty centuries, the city and region of Coimbra is known by its amazing variety of local sweets that, since 16ht century, marks the daily life of the already known as ´City of Knowledge`.



João Pedro Gomes, Centre for Classical and Humanistic Studies – University of Coimbra. DIAITA Project – Lusophone Food Heritage.

With over 2000 years of human occupation, the city of Coimbra developed in a hill overlooking the banks of the Mondego River, between the golden sands of the Atlantic Coast and the granitic peaks of the higher mountain of continental Portugal, Serra da Estrela (1993 m). Named Aeminium by the Romans, the city was ruled by Muslims between the 8th and 10th centuries a time when it was called Kulūmriyya, gaining its modern name from it. After its conquest by Christian troops in the mid-11th century, the city became one of the most important military and strategic points during the Christian Reconquista. King Afonso, first monarch of Portugal, elected Coimbra to be the capital of the new formed kingdom in the mid-12th century, turning the city in a prominent urban center and the military headquarters of the following reconquest actions until the reign of king Afonso III.


In a time of holy war against the Mouriscos (Moors), the Christian presence in the city was even stronger as well as its military power. Coimbra’s bishop transferred from the ruined Roman city of Conimbriga, a few miles away into the city and installed his palace in the former roman Forum. During the 12th century, with the financial support of king Afonso I, the construction of Sé Velha, a magnificent Romanic church was promoted where king Sancho I, the second king of Portugal, as crowned. Attracted by this new center of Faith, several religious orders established convents and monasteries in both margins of the River, close to the city, modeling the urban landscape in what is nowadays Coimbra. Supported by royalty, nobles and other donors, these religious orders grown in financial power and influence, possessing and administering large areas of land in the region, turning the city into a regional trading post and its surroundings into a dynamic region where people and goods moved constantly.

It was this particularly wealth and prosperity that lead king Dinis to install in Coimbra the first Portuguese university in 1290. His decision defined the evolution of the city since then, especially after the University transference into the Royal Palace in the 16th century, in which the university rectory is still installed. After this change, several religious orders installed their colleges in the city to host their members who came to study in the university, which lead king João III to open the ´street of knowledge` directly inspired in the Sorbonne model, Rua da Sofia, where some of these institutions built their colleges, with their own churches and cloisters.


Since then, Coimbra became the City Of Knowledge, crowed in the 18th century with the majestic baroque library Biblioteca Joanina (sponsored by king João V), playing the major role of the only university in the Portuguese Empire until early 20th century. This historical and cultural density was recognized as World Heritage by UNESCO in 2013, and the city is today, as well as in olden times, characterized as a place of cultural exchanges and human movement, where Tradition and Novelty coexist and shapes the city culture, identity and, of course, food. It seems strange to acknowledge that Coimbra does not have a typical plate or recipe. With all its history, how can this be? However, the long relation and dependence between the urban center and its rural surroundings created an amazing local and regional variety of plates and food traditions that can be found in the city restaurants, cafés and patisseries.




THE MOST IDENTITY FOOD ELEMENTS OF THE CITY IT’S ITS SWEETS

Several sweets associated to ´secret recipes` were produced by several religious houses and are still made and sold in the majority of the city’s patisseries. Historically well documented since the Middle Ages in all European kingdoms, the Manjar Branco (blancmange), locally associated to the Mosteiro de Celas, is still an exotic delicacy produced and sold by some patisseries and domestic producers (doceiras), although the unexpected mixture of chicken breasts, rice flour, milk, sugar and orange blossom water do not attract all tastes. With a larger group of admirers, the Pastéis de Santa Clara, associated with the religious order of Saint Clair and its once flooded monastery, are elaborated with a thick pastry filled with custard made of egg yolks, almonds, and sugar and they are sold in almost all over Coimbra. Arrufada has less sugar and it was widely consumed in some monasteries during the 19th century. It is a spiced bread, famous for its embroidery decorations on the top, and are used to make another sweet, Talhadas de Príncipe, thick slices covered with custard of egg yolks and sugar.

A lighter and unexpectedly oversized sweet, very close to meringue recipes, is often seen in patisseries and café windows: Suspiros, a big beige cracked sweet only made with sugar and whisked egg whites. Its origin is believed to be the use of the discarded egg whites from all the recipes that exclusively used egg yolks.


In Coimbra, tradition and novelty coexist and shapes the city culture, identity and, of course, food.



Sold in small bags and often offered to clients inside the patisseries, confeitos are small sugar balls, like candies, produced in yellow, red and white, and are the direct heirs of the homonymous 16th candy made with fennel seeds and used, as today, to decorate cakes and sweets. Another large group of products associated with the conventual world and widely known all over Portugal are also available in patisseries and cafés, such as Pastel de Nata, Óstia, Castanhas de Ovos, Fios de Ovos or Ovos Moles. In the last few years, some original sweet creations are produced and sold inspired in ancient recipes and in the city’s history and tradition, such as Crúzios (in honor of the Ordem de Santa Cruz), Pedro e Inês (honoring the romantic love between the Portuguese king Pedro I and the Spanish noble Dona Inês), Rosas da Rainha (a tribute to the miracle of roses of Queen Santa Isabel of Portugal and patron of Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha) or Biscoitos Académicos (a reinterpretation of a local recipe from 1902, promoted by a university research group and a pastry shop).


The traditional regional sweets, produced in the neighboring villages and sold in Coimbra, are well known and appreciated in the city as the local ones, reflecting the dynamics and relations between the city and its surroundings. Covered in powder sugar, the Pastéis de Santa Clara are associated to the rich monastery of Saint Clair, in which the widow queen Dona Isabel de Aragão –later Santa Isabel– lived her final years in religious confinement.


One of the most famous sweets around the country and formally protected by the Protected Geographic Indication seal (IPG) is the Pastel de Tentúgal, a sweet made of Phyllo dough (a flaky Greek pastry exclusively elaborated by artisanal means) filled with egg custard, which it is known to be an ancient recipe from a feminine convent in Tentúgal, the Convento de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. Associated to the same monastery we can find another sweet delicacy much appreciated in the region: the Queijadas, a star-shaped pastry made of fresh cheese, flour, eggs, milk and sugar.



In a neighbor town on the other side of the river, Pereira, a similar pastry is produced, with a circular shape but less sugared, called Queijadas de Pereira, a recipe associated to a local feminine college from the 18th century, the Real Colégio das Ursulinas.



North of Coimbra, and associated to the monastery of Lorvão, two other regional delicacies are well known: Nevadas, small cakes filled with an egg custard and covered in sugar glaze, and Pastéis do Lorvão, small and moist cakes made with eggs and almonds. There is a sweet bread called Bolo de Ançã, similar to the Coimbra’s Arrufada, is a local variety produced in a town called Ançã, famous for its soft and white limestone, used to make sculptures in the churches of the region, like the portal of Saint Cross Church in Coimbra.


From south of Coimbra, a less refined pastry, known as Escarpiadas, is made exclusively in Condeixa-a-Nova, a town close to the ruins of the Roman city of Conimbriga, which begun to be built at the end of the 19th century. The recipe passed from generation to generation through local families until today: these rectangular cakes made of bread dough are soaked, before and after baking, in a sauce made of cinnamon, sugar and olive oil.


This handful of sweet recipes and traditions is today one of the most important characteristics of Coimbra’s gastronomy heritage. In order to promote its particular regional heritage, the city organizes an annual fair exclusively dedicated to local and regional sweets: Mostra de Doçaria Conventual e Regional takes place in the first weekend of October and it is held on the cloister of the former Convento de Sant’Ana, today a military barracks. Born or inspired in the conventual world, locally produced by a restricted number of families and circumscribed to specific geographical areas, this sweet heritage is closely related to Coimbra’s long region history or architectural evolution. Therefore, there are cultural connections over the centuries still waiting to be discovered and tasted.


In the star-shaped Queijada de Tentúgal, the soft filing made of local fresh cheese, eggs and sugar, contrasts with the crisp exterior dough.




Copyright images: João Pedro Gomes.

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