Portuguese Christmas: A Feast of Tradition and Flavor
Christmas is surely one of the most eagerly awaited times of the year, due to its typical dishes and festive traditions, some of which are centuries old. When it comes to traditional Christmas food, Portugal celebrates it with a gastronomic tradition of authentic flavors. The combination of savory dishes with a variety of delicious sweet dishes creates a culinary tapestry that reflects the warmth and richness of our heritage. The centerpiece of Christmas Eve (in Portuguese, Consoada) is often codfish, served in a variety of ways, such as Bacalhau à Brás, Bacalhau com Natas, Bacalhau Com Todos, among other dishes. As for sweets, the iconic Bolo Rei stands out, garnished with candied fruit and nuts, as well as other traditional sweets such as Rabanadas, Azevias, and Pão-de-Ló, among many others.
Let’s start with the savory dishes, or rather the codfish. Codfish is often the main dish on Christmas Eve. There are various ways of preparing it, such as Bacalhau à Brás (shredded codfish with onions and potatoes), Bacalhau com Natas (codfish with cream), or the most famous, Bacalhau com Todos (codfish cooked with vegetables and potatoes). A dish that also uses codfish, or in other words, leftovers from the previous day, is Roupa Velha, a dish more suited to the 25th, as it uses up the leftovers from Christmas dinner. Despite being a relatively small country, but rich in traditions, in some areas of the country, such as Minho, Douro, and Trás-os-Montes, it is quite common to eat octopus for Christmas Eve. The tentacles are cooked until tender and served with vegetables, drizzled with olive oil previously heated with garlic cloves for an extra touch of flavor. There are also roasted meat dishes, such as turkey, lamb, or roast pork, which are often served with a variety of tasty dishes.
When it comes to sweet dishes, this is undoubtedly one of our specialties. Since Portuguese cuisine is famous for its traditional cakes, what better time to try them than during the Christmas season? Let’s start with the famous Bolo Rei, a traditional Christmas cake, circular and adorned with crystallized fruits and nuts. It is often enjoyed during the Christmas season and is famous as one of Portugal’s most famous cakes. There is also another version of this cake, the Bolo Rainha, which is a version without the famous fruit. In the past, the Bolo Rei also included a fava bean or, in some cases, even a small toy. However, for safety reasons, this practice has been abandoned. Other sweets that embellish this Christmas season are Rabanadas, Portuguese-style French toast, which are a much-loved Christmas dessert. These are slices of bread soaked in milk and egg, fried until golden brown, and then sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Next up are the traditional Portuguese doughnuts, the Filhós, which are very popular at Christmas. They can be plain or filled with a sweet mixture and are fried until golden brown. Another sweet pastry is Azevias, filled with a mixture of chickpeas, sugar, and sometimes nuts or sweet potato. They come in various forms and are a delight during the Christmas season. Last but not least is the famous Pão-de-Ló, a traditional Portuguese sponge cake known for its light, airy texture, and sweet, eggy flavor. In certain regions, there is a wetter version of this sponge cake, in which the inside has a gooey texture. This characteristic is achieved through careful baking techniques, often involving a slightly shorter baking time or adjustments to the proportion of ingredients.
When it comes to traditions, Christmas traditions in Portugal are deeply embedded in a combination of religious customs, cultural practices, and family-orientated celebrations. Some of these traditions have already been mentioned, such as food, which is certainly one of the pillars that underpin the Christmas season, but we also have the Midnight Mass (in Portuguese, Missa do Galo), an important religious tradition in which families attend this mass on Christmas Eve, marking the birth of Jesus Christ. There’s Christmas Eve (in Portuguese, Consoada), a central part of Christmas celebrations in Portugal, where families get together to share a meal. The nativity scenes, which depict the birth of Jesus often include detailed figures representing various aspects of daily life at the time. The Carolers (in Portuguese, Carolos) who sing Christmas carols, adding a musical element to the festivities. On top of all this, we also have the Christmas markets, the countless charity festivals that take place at this time of year, and, finally, on the 6th of January, the celebration of Three Kings’ Day. This day commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Child Jesus and marks the end of the Christmas season.
These traditions contribute to a warm and festive atmosphere, emphasizing family, faith, and the joy of giving during the Christmas season in Portugal and around the world.