Conventual sweets are the most typical and characteristic sweets of Portuguese cuisine. There are no other sweets in the world that use this abysmal amount of egg yolks and sugar as it’s used in Portuguese conventual sweets. Initially, you may be surprised, but then you don’t want anything else.
The most famous Portuguese conventual sweet in the world is pastel de nata, but there are dozens (even hundreds) of conventual sweets, and each convent had its specialty. In this article, we will enter the magic world of conventual sweets, understand what conventual sweets are, why they exist, and a list of the best and most often appreciated in Portugal.
What are conventual sweets
Conventual sweets are sweets made in convents and monasteries by nuns or monks characterized by large amounts of sugar and egg yolks, but often also almond. Basically, it is a big portion of the Portuguese sweets.
In the past, sweets were mostly made in convents and monasteries, ranging from sweets and pastries to jams and even liquors. It was characteristic throughout Europe, but what differentiates Portugal’s conventual sweets is that we almost exclusively egg yolks, loads of sugar, and little flour are used. This makes the Portuguese conventual sweet unique and very rich.
History of conventual sweets
Conventual sweets gained notoriety from the 15th century when sugar cane from Brazil and Madeira began to be used. In addition to the easy access to sugar, Portugal was also one of the largest egg producers in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Egg whites were exported, used as a purifier in the production of white wine, and iron the suits of the richest men and the nuns’ habits. Thus with a huge surplus of egg yolks, the convents began to use the available ingredients to produce sweets. These sweets were mostly used to celebrate religious festivals and sold to private individuals.
It must also be borne in mind that at this time, joining a religious order was not merely for religious reasons. Many nobles’ daughters opted for an ecclesiastical life due to family pressures, patrimonial strategies, and when an appropriate marriage was not possible. Generally, the nobles were accompanied by servants who helped in the preparation of food. This meant that often convents were also a place of education and refuge.
So the nuns had the time, the ingredients, and help to develop sweets. Each convent developed its own sweet. With the opening of new convents, some recipes were shared (others were kept a secret), which were later adapted and had each one’s personal stamp. This led to the creation of dozens of recipes or variations of them. It is usual to have several recipes for the same sweets or very similar sweets.
Also, visits to the convents were part of the social etiquette, so sweets were needed to entertain the guests. The convents of the Order of Santa Clara, the Poor Clares, and the Carmo Order (the Carmelites) produced the most well-known conventual sweets and had the greatest reputation.
In 1834, following the Liberal revolution and wars, it was decreed the extinction of religious orders. The female convents remained in operation until the last nun died, with no novices allowed. Convents started selling conventual sweets to private individuals. Some families welcomed nuns, and over time, the recipes were passed on to these host families or sold to pastry shops. However, many recipes for conventual sweets have been lost or even burned.
Nowadays they are a well-kept secret of the leading pastry shops.
Best conventual sweets
This list was challenging to create, there are dozens of conventual sweets spread across the country, several versions of the same conventual sweets, or even sweets with the same name, but they do not seem otherwise related. Each convent had its specialties, which were a well-kept treasure. However, sometimes it was possible to confiscate the recipe for another convent.
Unfortunately, it is known that many recipes have been lost over time. The secrecy and fear of theft meant that some recipes were not even written, they were only orally transmitted, with the closure of the religious orders, many of the recipes disappeared. This is a big loss for Portuguese cuisine.
We tried to compile a list of the most well-known and popular convent sweets and the sweets where the convent or monastery of origin is known. It is not an easy task, and many worthy sweets have not been mentioned. Perhaps in the future, we will add some more.
Pasteis de Belém
Pasteis de Belém are the most well-known Conventual sweets in Portugal and abroad. Created in Jerónimos Monastery, with the dissolution of religious orders, the pastries started to be sold outside the Monastery, becoming known as Pasteis de Belém.
In 1837, the pastries’ production began to be made in the Old Pastelaria de Belém, next to the monastery, using the original recipe that was transmitted among the pastry chefs until today.
Pasteis de Belém are made with crispy puff pastry stuffed with egg cream and then baked in the oven. But the details of the original recipe are a secret kept under lock and key.
Pudim Abade de Priscos
The Abade de Priscos pudding is a typical Portuguese dessert created by Abbot Manuel Joaquim Rebelo, who served in the parish of Priscos (near Braga) in the 19th century. It is not a candy created in the convent but by a clergyman, which was an exceptional cook.
This sweet is a pudding made with lots of eggs and a special ingredient, lard, which makes the pudding very silky and sweet, melting in the mouth when eating. It is absolutely divine, and do not worry about the lard as it is imperceptible.
Pasteis de Tentúgal
Pastel de Tentúgal is a conventual sweet created at the Nossa Senhora do Carmo Convent in Tentúgal, near Coimbra, by the Carmelite nuns. It is one of the most well-known conventual sweets in Portugal.
The Tentúgal pastry is a crunchy pastry made with filo pastry and stuffed with egg cream. It is simply divine, as the soft egg cream contrasts with the crunchy texture of the filo pastry.
Pasteis de Santa Clara of Coimbra
The Pasteis de Santa Clara were created in the Santa Clara convent in Coimbra. They are made with tender pastry dough in the shape of a half-moon stuffed with egg jam and grated almonds. Santa Clara sweets were sold at the Monastery gatehouse during the Rainha Santa festivities. Later they started to be sold to university students and then to everyone.
In addition to these pastries, the Santa Clara Convent in Coimbra produced many well-known convent sweets such as the egg lamprey or the Poor Clares pudding.
It should be noted that several Santa Clara convents in Portugal also made sweets that are well known, like Santa Clara convent in Vila do Conde, the Santa Clara convent in Portalegre, Guimarães, and others.
Pasteis de Lorvão
Pasteis of Lorvão (Lorvão Pastries) are a sweet convent of the Monastery of Santa Maria do Lorvão in the municipality of Penacova. Nuns and monks offered pastries to guests and visitors.
It is a dense and moist candy made with almond kernels, egg yolks, and whites. Incredibly tasty. It is similar in appearance to queijadas. It is said that when the Duke of Wellington spent the night at the Monastery, during the French Invasions, he loved Lorvão’s pastel.
Barrigas de Freira de Arouca
Barrigas de Freira (nun’s bellies) of Arouca were created in the convent of Mafalda in Arouca, currently extinct, by the Bernardas Nuns. It is a sweet made with eggs, sugar, almonds, and bread, which is eaten with a spoon.
There is another version of the Nun’s Bellies in Coimbra, which is completely different. These are half-moon-shaped pastries made from flour and filled with egg yolks and eggs and almonds.
However, there are many versions of Barrigas de Freira from different convents throughout the country.
Toucinho do Céu
It is believed that this conventual sweet originates from the São Bento monastery in Murça, Trás-os-Montes, by the Benedictine nuns. It is a cake made from sugar syrup, to which is added Gila candy, grated almonds, and plenty of egg yolks and flour. The cake has a rectangular shape and is sprinkled with powdered sugar. The name Toucinho do céu means bacon from heaven and comes from the fact that originally lard was used to make it.
Toucinho do Céu is a conventual sweet also traditional in Alentejo and Guimarães. It is thought that the recipe was shared with the Convent of Santa Monica in Évora, as was often the case at that time. Whether from Murça, Guimarães, or Évora, this sweet is worth tasting.
Papos de Anjo
Papos de Anjo (translates to Angel’s Dewlap) is a conventual sweet very well known and appreciated in Portugal, but its origin is unknown. It is sweet, made with egg yolks and beaten sugar, and then cooked in the oven.
There are also other versions of this sweet, namely the half-moon papos de anjo made with a wafer stuffed with egg candy.
Soft Eggs of Aveiro
Soft Eggs (or Ovos moles in Portuguese) is a traditional conventual sweet from Aveiro whose origin dates back to several convents in Aveiro – of the Carmelites’ order, Franciscans’ order, and Dominicans of the Monastery of Jesus. With the extinction of orders, the recipe was maintained by women who had been educated in convents, the recipe is passed on to the following generations.
It is an extremely simple conventual sweet, but it is divine. It consists of only egg yolks and sugar, wrapped in wafers or placed in wooden or porcelain barrels and eaten by spoon.
Clarinhas de Fão
The Clarinhas de Fão are a conventual sweet that originated in the Convent of baby Jesus in de Barcelos. In 1830 they started to be manufactured at Confeitaria Salvação in Barcelos. It is said that the recipe was stolen by a resident of Fão, Esposende, who started making and selling it and then becoming popular in Fão.
These sweets are made with a thin pastry in the shape of a half-moon and filled with chila pumpkin wrapped with egg yolks and sugar and at the end, they are fried.
Brisas do Lis
Brisas do Lis or Liz are a conventual sweet thought to have appeared in the Convent of Santa Ana of the Dominican order in the 18th century. It is said that the recipe was passed on to a devotee who frequented the convent. Another version is that the sweet would have arisen from a partnership of two friends D. Maria do Céu Lopes and Georgina Santos, who opened the Colonial café that sold Brisas do Lis, where initially they were called Beijinhos do Liz (Liz kisses).
Brisas do Liz are made with eggs, sugar, and almonds cooked in a water bath; they have a consistency similar to puddings. They have many similarities with the Brazilian sweet called Quindim, and some even say that Brisa do Liz gave rise to Quindim.
Dom Rodrigo is a traditional conventual sweet from Lagos, Algarve. It comes from the Nossa Senhora da Carmo Convent and was created to honor Algarve’s captain-general, Dom Rodrigo de Menezes, hence its name.
This Conventual candy is made with egg yolk, almond kernels, sugar, and yolks and is presented in 3 ways: wrapped in metallic paper (more frequent), in the form of candies, or in a glass bowl to be eaten with a spoon.
There are other well-known convent sweets, but their origin cannot be understood, such as the pão de ló which is traditional in Ovar but the original convent is unknown. We only know that several families from Ovar dedicated themselves to making these regional sweets. We have only included here the sweets that are suspected which convent or monastery they originated from.
Curious names of the Conventual Sweets
You may have noticed that some of the names of the conventual sweets are a bit curious. Some are linked to religion, which is natural, but others are at least… provocative.
Thus, we have names of conventual sweets that had to do with the daily life of the nuns and with religious references such as “queijinho do céu” (cheese from heaven), “fatias de Santa Clara” (slices of Santa Clara), “bolo do paraíso” (cake from heaven), “manjar celeste” (heavenly delicacy), “toucinho do céu” (bacon from heaven), or “papos de anjo” (angel’s dewlaps).
While other sweets have much more provocative names such as “Barriguinhas das freiras” (Nuns’ bellies), “maminhas da noviça” (novice’s breasts), “beijos da freira” (nun’s kisses), “bolas de sacristão” (sacristan balls), “gargantas de freiras” (nun’s throats). There are no references to the origins of these names, thus it is not known if these funny names were given later or how they started to be used … but they are very curious and amusing.
Where to eat Conventual Sweets
Each place in Portugal has its typical and original conventual Sweets. Usually, you will find these convent sweets in local bakeries and pastry shops. There may be a well-renown pastry that’s the reference in each town. However, some cities in Portugal are references in terms of conventual sweets, such as Coimbra, Aveiro, and Alcobaça.
In addition, a conventual sweets and liqueurs show is held at the Monastery of Alcobaça, usually in November, where there are examples of conventual sweets from each region. There’s also an annual contest for the best Conventual sweets in the country. For this, Alcobaça is considered a paradise for Conventual sweets. If you don’t have the opportunity to go to the fair, the Alcoa pastry shop in front of the monastery sells all year round the conventual sweets that won the competition. They are divine. There is also an Alcoa pastry shop in Lisbon.
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