Portugal is a country rich in history and heritage, and steeped in religious ritual and tradition. Its culture represents layer upon layer of different civilizations that lived in and ruled Europe’s westernmost country during past millennia — from prehistoric cultures to the Phoenicians and the Romans, spanning Germanic invasions, the Sephardic Jewish migration and finally the Moorish conquest and subsequent expulsion. Today, Portugal is largely Roman Catholic but pieces of these ancient civilizations can still be found, in museums and monuments – yes — but also in small villages and abandoned churches; in the language with its mix of Latin and Arabic influences; and of course on the table.
Here are five of the best Portuguese Easter foods, the holiest holiday in Portugal, all of them full of flavor and history.
If food is a religion in Portugal, then codfish is its most holy dish. It’s said that there are 365 different ways to prepare bacalhau, the Portuguese national dish of salted, dried codfish — one for each day of the year. True or not, one thing is for sure – on Good Friday, bacalhau will be consumed by Portuguese families across the country in keeping with the tradition of abstaining from meat until Easter Sunday.
Lamb or Baby Goat
A holiday tradition in many parts of the world, roast lamb is often the centerpiece of the Portuguese table on Easter Sunday. Harking back to the Jewish tradition, lamb represents the sacrifice during the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. In the northern part of the country, cabrito, or baby goat, is often served in place of lamb. Whether lamb or goat, the meat is seasoned with the Portuguese trinity of garlic, bay leaves and white wine, and roasted for hours until succulent and falling off the bone. For those lucky enough to have access to a wood oven, still common in the countryside, the flavor is unforgettable — meaty, rich and intense.
In Alentejo, in the south of Portugal, lamb stew over bread, or Ensopado de Borrego, is traditional. Here the meat is seasoned similarly and stewed rather than roasted. It’s then poured over slices of dense homemade Alentejo bread which have been laid on the bottom of a serving dish.
Folar da Páscoa
Representing the breaking of bread during the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Christ, Folar da Páscoa is a traditional Portuguese Easter bread. A sweet yeast bread, it contains hard-boiled eggs in their shells under a cross made of dough. Regional variations include the addition of cinnamon or lemon zest. In some regions, especially those in the North, it can be served as a savory bread, wrapped around pieces of pork, cured ham or chouriço. Whether sweet or savory, it is one of the Portuguese Easter foods beloved by everyone.
Pão de Ló
A true Easter Pão de Ló is a very light sponge cake made only with sugar, eggs, flour and lemon zest or a pinch of cinnamon. One of the best-known desserts in Portugal, and certainly one of the cherished Portuguese Easter foods, this cake has its origins in the 15th century. As is true of many of the most beloved Portuguese sweets, it was traditionally made in Convents by nuns and (as is also true) is very rich in eggs. Legend has it that traditional conventual desserts here are made with so many egg yolks because the Sisters used egg whites to starch their habits. Pão de Ló traveled to Japan in the 16th century with Portuguese sailors where it was adopted by the Japanese who call it Kasutera, and where it is still a very typical and popular treat today.
There is a Portuguese legend that says that once upon a time when the Algarve region was ruled by the Moors, a young and handsome Moorish prince married a beautiful Nordic Princess. Though they were madly in love, she pined for the snowy landscapes of her homeland. The Prince, not wanting his beloved to suffer, planted thousands of almond trees, as far as the eye could see. And, in spring, when the trees burst into beautiful white blooms, the Princess looked out of the castle window and imagined that she was home and that the land was covered in snow — such is the beauty of almond trees in bloom. A harbinger of spring, Easter almonds symbolize the egg, an icon of fertility. Until the Middle Ages, these almonds were traditionally covered with honey. Today they are covered with sugar, and according to ancient tradition, they are offered at Easter time as a small gift of one of the beloved Portuguese Easter foods from godparents to their godchildren.