At Portuguese Christmas, the cod is the King. Although there are other traditional dishes, currently the dish that most Portuguese families eat at Christmas is cod.
Cod is an important part of national identity and history. And at Christmas, this presence is even stronger due to the ecclesiastical tradition of fasting, not being able to eat meat, the faithful cod made tradition on the Christmas tables.
While in Northern Portugal, on Christmas eve the meal was eaten before the midnight mass, sou couldn’t eat meat yet. In the south of Portugal, you would say after the midnight mass when you were allowed to eat meat.
On Christmas Day, the most frequent traditional dishes are roasted goat, stuffed turkey, and roasted or stuffed pork. Regardless of the dish, the day is filled with lots of delicious food and to finish off some of the most appetizing traditional Christmas sweets.
To write this post we surveyed the Traditional Christmas dishes in Portugal, from north to the south, including the islands. Although, recently some of these dishes have fallen out of use, or are only eaten by very few people.
Out of curiosity, some people had the superstition of not cleaning the table on Christmas eve, so that the dead could come to make their party while they are all sleeping.
Traditional dishes on Christmas Eve
Bacalhau com todos (Salted Cod)
There’s no Christmas without Cod – it is one of the symbols of Christmas in Portugal. It is eaten all over the country, accompanied by boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, Portuguese or/and Galician cabbage, and sometimes carrots and even beans. Hence the name “Bacalhau com todos,” Cod with everything. In the end, it is drizzled with good olive oil heated with onion and garlic.
Tradition dictates that the potatoes must be large so that they do not crumble, the Cod needs to be thick, and the Galician or Portuguese cabbage big – with large sections. Salted cod has to be soaked in advance several times – especially if it is thick.
The origin of the Cod tradition on Christmas Eve dates back to the 16th century when fasting was imposed by the Catholic Church until the 24th of December. You could not eat meat, and since Cod was the cheapest option it became the food of choice for the people at Christmas. Furthermore, in December, it was difficult for fishermen to catch fresh fish, reducing, even more, the food options. Cod was eaten at night, and later on, after midnight mass, fasting was over, and you could eat sweets and meat.
If cod is the king of Christmas, in Minho and Trás os Montes, octopus is the Emperor. The tradition of eating octopus at Christmas was so strong that people smuggled it from Galicia – people found very imaginative ways to pass the octopus across the Portuguese/Spanish border.
The tradition of eating Christmas octopus was heavily influenced by Galicia, which was a huge center for octopus fishing. And as the octopus was dry, it lasted all year round, being essential in the region of Galicia and northern Portugal, especially near the border.
During the Salazar dictatorship, the importation of octopus was prohibited, giving preference to cod. However, the desire to eat octopus was so strong that there was contraband. Despite the strong control of the fiscal guards, it was always found a way to get the octopus to Portugal. It was hidden in several layers of clothing, buried in holes, among other creative ways to deceive the border guard.
At Christmas, the octopus was hung behind the door, and two days before breakfast, the women washed it in the fountain. They also beat the octopus on a rock at least 50 times until it went limp. Then they cooked the Octopus until it is tender, and it was served potatoes and onions. It was eaten before the midnight mass.
Capão à Freamunde (Capon of Freamunde)
In Freamunde, a city in the municipality of Paços de Ferreira, it is traditional (in some families) to eat capon on Christmas Eve or Christmas. The tradition begins on December 13, at the Capons fair and the Santa Luzia festival.
At this fair, which dates back to the 15th century, capons are exhibited and sold, besides the other usual products. In the past, it was customary to offer a capon as a gift. At the same time as the fair, the gastronomic fair is held, which is a good time to try capon cooked in local restaurants.
A capon is a 3-month-old rooster that has been castrated/neutralized – the cock’s crest is cut. At 9 months, when it reaches between 3 and 7 kg, it is ready to be cooked. The capon is drunk with a glass of Port wine, and 30 minutes later, it is killed. Capon meat is more tender and tasty than “normal” chicken.
To cook this delicacy, it is necessary to marinate the capon for 24 to 48 hours with wine and garlic, and then it is filled with giblets, onion, garlic, ham, sausage, chorizo, and much more. It is baked in the oven for about 3 hours, sided with roasted potatoes and sprouts.
On the island of Madeira, Christmas Eve is usually simpler than in the rest of the country. On Christmas Eve after the Mass of the Rooster, it was customary to eat chicken soup accompanied by sandwiches of “bolo do caco” (one of the best Portuguese bread, very traditional in Madeira) with chicken or pork in wine and garlic.
This chicken soup is cooked with rice, chicken, onion, cinnamon, or cloves, and may have turnip and carrot. Bolo do Caco sandwiches are made with the rest of the chicken,
In the Azores, the tradition is the chicken consommé, a chicken broth with vegetables.
In Alentejo, there’s the Missadura, the local name of the meal eaten after the Midnight Mass. The Missadura includes a whole variety of pork meat.
Before Christmas, a pig is slaughtered, preparing the meat for Christmas Eve, the loins, pork steaks, ribs, and sausage. After being heavily marinated the meat was eaten on Missadura. Various types of meat were grilled or fried and served with typical bread.
Before Missadura, families in Alentejo usually eat a light meal, such as dogfish soup, fried hake, cod, or other fish, accompanied by potatoes, cauliflower, or sprouts.
Christmas lunch (at the 25th of December)
Roupa Velha (which translates directly to old clothing) is a typical dish in Northern Portugal (Minho mostly), eaten on Christmas day. It is a dish made with cod, potatoes, and vegetable leftovers from the previous night. The cod is shredded, the skins and bones are removed, the potatoes, cabbages, and other vegetables are cut into small portions. Add these ingredients to an onion and garlic stew and fry everything together. It is drizzled with olive oil, and boiled eggs are added to finish off.
Farrapo Velho is usually eaten before the meat, goat, or turkey dish. The name of this dish comes from its appearance, the food wraps together and there is a contrast of colors and textures.
The dish may have an odd appearance, but it is delicious – in our opinion, it’s better than the Codfish with all the vegetables. Above all, it is a nostalgic dish, evocative of Christmas and home, at least in the north of Portugal.
Roasted goat is a typical Christmas dish, especially in the North and Beiras, particularly in Beira Alta. It’s a delicious dish eaten every year but it’s especially good for Christmas.
A good kid with at least 3 kg is necessary, without frills or fat, to avoid the gamy flavor. The meat is marinated in white wine with garlic, pepper paste, olive oil, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and rosemary 24 to 48 hours before roasting. Finally, it is roasted in the oven for 90 minutes and served with new potatoes with skin, roasted with the meat.
Roasted turkey, although less frequent, is also present at some Christmas tables. An imported tradition from North America, where it is abundantly eaten, especially on Thanksgiving. In the past, roasted turkey was more associated with the nobility, while Cod was a Christmas tradition that started with the poor.
As tradition dictates, Peru can only be consumed after the Rooster’s Mass, so it is a dish often eaten on Christmas Day. The cod prevails for supper.
After being killed with a glass of port, the turkey is stuffed and roasted. Depending on the region of the country, it is filled with different ingredients. In the Douro and Minho region, it is often stuffed with chestnut cream. In Alentejo, it is filled with the famous Alentejo sausages and meats. It can also be stuffed with bread and giblets.
Pork in wine and garlic
In Madeira, between the 8th of December (day of the Immaculate Conception) and the beginning of the Masses of Childbirth (9 masses celebrated at dawn that starts on the 16th of December), the traditional slaughter of the pig begins. In the past, the family got together, the pig was killed, and all the meat is used. The meat was already prepared with Christmas in mind.
Nowadays, the killings are no longer carried out the same way, but many families continue to eat meat in wine and garlic on Christmas Day. The meat is left to marinate in white wine, vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, salt, and pepper at least 3 days before Christmas. Then it is cooked in this marinade, and finally, it is fried in lard. It is accompanied by bread soaked in meat sauce and also fried in lard. This typical Madeiran dish must appear at Christmas tables.
It is said that this tradition has its origins in the Minho people who migrated to Madeira, and the recipe is based on Minho rojões, with a Madeiran touch.
Many families in the Algarve used to eat a chicken stew at Christmas. Older poultry animals were sacrificed, which during the year were kept for being productive and giving eggs.
As the meat is harder, it was necessary to stew the chicken or the rooster for hours. They were cooked in an iron pot set over a wood fire for hours until the meat separated from the bones, and the potatoes were added.
Some families added the blood of the chicken and made cabidela (typical chicken blood rice), which is also traditional for Christmas in the Algarve region.
Roasted pork loin
Roasted pork loin is a typical dish that is present on many Portuguese Christmas tables. Like many other recipes here, to be tastier, it is necessary to season the meat in advance. Then it goes to the oven accompanied by potatoes, carrots, onions, and of course, you can’t miss the white rice. In the Alentejo, the pork loin is roasted in a pepper mass.
Another way of cooking it is by stuffing it. One of the most traditional ways to stuff the pork loin is with sausages and vegetables. A simple but delicious dish.
Over time traditions change, they are dictated by the ingredients available at the moment and by your family’s tradition. But in the end, Portuguese Christmas is the family! We are all gathered around a table to savor good food and enjoy each other’s company.
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