2020 – A weird Christmas in Algarve
2020 will remain etched in the collective memory of all of us: a disruptive event of planetary proportions has profoundly affected our lives, everyday life wherever it takes place, at home, in the family, at work, simply everywhere. We have had to assume new, unnatural, and very limiting behaviours and habits of life both physically and (even more impactful) psychologically.
Suddenly we have adapted to a restricted, even narrow reality, in which the possible spaces of freedom have been and still are, above all, mental.
The culmination of this very critical situation will be the celebration of Christmas, which will be decidedly subdued for most of us, but even more so for those who have personally experienced their own illness or that of their family and friends.
In any case, Christmas will come again this year, but many of us will not be able to enjoy it as we would have wished, whether by our own choice, by a sense of responsibility or by force majeure, necessarily avoiding the usual family gatherings or festive outings with friends to wish each other well.
It is important and desirable to make an effort to spend these festive days in a serene mood, dedicating ourselves to something that fills our days in a positive way, committing our time to something that gives us satisfaction, such as preparing an excellent meal on a beautifully laid table. It doesn’t matter how many people are invited, the important thing is to dedicate a sincere wish of happiness to those near and far, to ourselves, to everyone.
It is in this spirit that we have decided to bring back to you, as we like to do, the essence of the real Algarve Christmas through its ”iguarias” to evoke how it was really lived until a few decades ago.
The most characteristic aspect of this time of year was the collective participation in its rites and celebrations, involving not only relatives but also neighbours, so that the abundant libations were not reserved exclusively for individual family members, but were intended for the whole community, thus strengthening the bonds of friendship, cooperation and good neighbourliness.
Every family in every aldeia in the inland of Algarve prepared the classic Christmas sweets: ‘bolo rei, bolo rainha, pasteis de batata doce, bolos ou broas de mel, queijinhos de figo e de amendoa, os sonhos etc.’, accompanied by liqueurs such as Medronho and Melosa (the two most famous Algarvian firewaters).
Each family opened its door to visits from family, friends and neighbours, and the streets filled with life and bustled with people until Christmas Eve dinner (”Consoada”), the magical night that culminated in the celebration of Christmas Mass at the stroke of midnight (”Missa do Galo’‘).
It is worth pointing out that there are two different strands of tradition: some families gave, and still give today, more emphasis to the Christmas Eve dinner others consider the 25 December meal to be the centrepiece of the Christmas celebration (in many cases people take advantage of the two occasions to visit some relatives the day before and share with others the day after).
Christmas Special Dishes (iguarias de Natal)
Let us now focus our attention on the traditional Algarvian Christmas ‘iguarias’.
As the years and generations pass, many have replaced the traditional nativity scene with a Christmas tree decorated with balls and colourful LED lights, but the Algarvian Christmas menu remains the most classic and faithful to tradition: it starts with a table laden with all sorts of enchidos such as presunto, chouriço vermelho and preto sliced into rounds, farinheira, fresh goat cheese and curado, dried fruits and good adega wine, followed by mouthwatering meat or fish dishes.
Depending on whether the family came from the ”Serra” or the ”Litoral” areas of the Algarve, the menu would be based on meats such as lamb, turkey or chicken (cooked succulently in a wood-burning oven) or fish or seafood such as ”litão” or octopus, which were very common in the Olhão and Portimão areas.
Nowadays, the availability of all sorts of food, at all times, even in excess of a person’s actual needs in his or her ‘modern’ life, makes Christmas lunch less desirable than it once was.
Traditionally, a typical distinction between wealthy and modest families was that the former would cook a stuffed turkey in a wood-fired oven, while the latter would bring to the table the famous bacalhão cooked in a variety of recipes.
There is no doubt that, today as in the past, sweets occupy a prominent place on the Christmas menu.
In the past, the consumption of sweets was limited to the celebration of religious festivals, such as Easter and Christmas, or of important social events such as weddings or baptisms. The same can be said for the consumption of meat and fish.
In past times, everyday cooking was simpler and more frugal, essentially based on the recovery of scraps from previous meals or products that were no longer fresh (think, for example, of the thousands of uses for dry bread!) but also, and above all, for this reason, Christmas was really Christmas!
It is difficult to say which is the king of traditional Christmas sweets in the Algarve, but one of the most important is ”filhós”, a sweet made by frying a mixture of flour, sugar and ”banha de porco” (pork’s fats) in a large pan of boiling oil, then rolling it into a snail shape and covering it with a honey glaze.
Bolo Rei – The King of All Christmas Sweets
Christmas pastries include the traditional ‘Bolo dos Reis‘ (with its many variations, including the ‘Bolo da Rainha’ or ‘Escangalhado’) that is the most popular Christmas cake nationwide.
The bolo-rei is a leavened, round cake with a hole in the centre. It is filled with sultanas and caramelised fruit in the dough, which is also visible on the surface in bright colours that enhance the festive appearance of this iconic Christmas cake.
In this regard, we are delighted with the recognition that the great Michelin-starred chef, Francisco Moreira, has recently given to a traditional Algarvian bakery that we know very well: the esteemed Quinta dos Avos in Algoz, in the Silves district (read the article).
The Chef was asked to give his opinion on the 10 best ”bolo-rei” nationwide, as part of a campaign to support local commerce via Facebook, #DoceNatalCompreLocal, which rightly aims to support purchases from local bakeries and shops in the area that have clearly suffered from the restrictions on the public, during the lockdown period and have been paying for many years in competition with large retailers.
At this time of year, bakeries also churn out a lot of ‘Pão de Lo’, but it should be noted that this cake is more popular in the central and northern areas of Portugal ( Aveiro region), making it less popular among Algarvians.
‘Pão de Lo’ is a cake made of eggs, sugar and flour without ferment, and is found in many countries: in Italy it is known as ‘pan di Spagna’ and in England and the United States it is known as ‘sponge cake’.
This doughnut-shaped cake lends itself to being splendidly filled, and in Portugal it is filled with creme de ovos. Delicious!
Other popular desserts typical of Christmas in Algarve are ”pasteis de batata doce”. These are crescent-shaped pancakes filled with a sweet potato and cinnamon filling and sprinkled with white sugar.
Just as typical are the ”queijinhos de figo e amendoa”, small to medium-sized cakes made exclusively from dried figs mixed with an equal quantity of skinless almonds, sugar and honey, a teaspoon of cocoa and kneaded into the shape of small ‘queijos’.
Another Christmas delicacy is ‘figos cheios’, which are dried figs filled with almonds, sugar and a few spices, which are then roasted in the oven. The women of the house spent many hours in the kitchen preparing ‘figos cheios’, which would be on the table every day from Christmas Eve to Epiphany.
Generally speaking, both Christmas Eve dinner and 25 December lunch are eaten later than usual, because much more time is spent preparing the food, which usually includes five main courses.
In an atmosphere of great conviviality, the table is prepared for the festivities and the meals are then served over hours, consumed without any hurry, since the only purpose of the day is to enjoy the food, the company and the home.
Yes, the fireplace! The fireplace plays a fundamental role in the Algarvian Christmas display, not at all secondary to the nativity scene or the Christmas tree, although most homes today do not have stoves or fireplaces as they once did (the tradition of the Algarvian traditional nativity scene is worth a dedicated investigation that we’ll certainly soon post).
In the past, houses were certainly not well insulated, nor very energy efficient, but there was no house, especially in the countryside, that did not have a large open fireplace that was the core of domestic life, around which the whole family gathered in the evening after a long and tough day’s work in the fields.
Christmas Eve in Algarve
Well, in the collective imagination of the real Algarvian Christmas, the lighting of the fire on Christmas Eve is a ritual of vital importance, as is the quality and variety of the food served at the table on feast days, as Jose’ Carlos Vilhena points out in his very inspiring post.
He describes in detail the tradition of the Christmas ‘madeiro’ in the Algarve.
The ”madeiro” is a large log of ”azinho” ( holm oak )that was placed in the fireplace, slightly behind the rest of the firewood, so that it would not be burnt by the open flame too quickly, but slowly reduced to incandescent embers, able to heat the house for the whole day to the delight of the whole family and guests.
The author, Jose’ Carlos Vilhena, also mentions the popular belief that the slower the ‘madeiro’ was burned, the more prosperous and fortunate the coming year would be for family members.
These are the peculiarities of the Algarvian Christmas: the strength of its traditional dishes, cooked with genuine local produce, the home as a festive meeting place for people, and the collective rituals that characterised the Christmas of many years ago, from Christmas mass to popular songs under the windows of the house by the ”charoleiros” (groups of popular traditional singers).
Today, we live in times in which many traces of our past, even the recent past, are rapidly fading away, reduced to a heterogeneous mixture of habits, many of which are alien to the culture of the place and the people, shaped and flattened by a secular globalisation, which reduces people to an indistinct mass of consumers, often with little awareness.
We deeply believe that these specificities linked to the culture of the territory should be rediscovered and enhanced as much as possible, preserving them intact in the passage between generations.
In the meantime, we can choose to concretely support local producers and commerce and give something simple, but authentic and welcome: a liqueur distilled by a small producer such as ”medronho”, a ”bolo-rei” baked by a local lady, a candle hand-modelled by a beekeeper, a handmade item created by someone we may meet every day.
We wish you a peaceful Christmas and look forward to seeing you again!
And a Happy New Year!