A Traditional Christmas in Portugal

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As a popular tourist destination, and with a growing population of year-round international residents, Christmas in the Algarve caters to a wide range of tastes and traditions.  However, some traditions and flavours are held dear and are an immutable part of Christmas in Portugal.
Christmas Day may be on the 25th,  however the big celebration and family gatherings happen on the 24th December in Portugal. Friends and family come together for a massive feast and shared moments – the Consoada.

Tables are laden with a variety of starters, snacks and treats. Preparations for the feast begin early, with lots of activity in the kitchen. Expect to see lots of cheese, rissoles, croquettes, wafer-thin, crumbed, and fried escalopes of pork; crispy bread, olives and home-made patés; prawns – fried and spiced with piri-piri or boiled, peeled at the table and eaten with your fingers.

Traditionally, the main course of the Consoada is Bacalhau com Todos – boiled salted cod with cabbage, carrots, boiled eggs, garlic and good quality olive oil. There are hundreds of ways to cook Bacalhau, so some families opt for a different way to feast on cod. Cabrito Assado (roast goat) is also a popular dish.

Desserts and sweets are a massive part of the Consoada, and you can expect a great variety of sweet treats – rice pudding with cinnamon; Sonhos – a Portuguese take on doughnuts; Leite crème which is similar to crème brulée, and cakes galore. One of the stars in Bolo Rei – Kings Cake, which is a sweet bread with fruits and nuts.

As midnight approaches, most houses with young children will expect a visit from Santa Claus. This is usually a family member who sneaks off without the kids noticing and returns dressed in the famous red suit with presents for all. A little bit of magic the children enjoy.

Given all the festivities of the 24th, Christmas Day itself in Portugal can be a fairly calm affair with a late start. It is often a day when people visit each other homes or spend time with family they missed on the 24th.

A perfect Christmas Portuguese style by Chef Jonnie Pratt

It was an acquired taste for a foreigner like me. Christmas has always been turkey and ham, but now after more than 20 years in Portugal, Christmas would not be the same without these special items.

Consoada – a feast on the 24th
Plates of cheese with marmelada (quince jelly)
Peeling shrimps with your hands at the table
Rissois, croquettes and coxas de frango - all the small homemade fried items
A selection of dried nuts and fruits - if you ever get a chance to pop into Perola de Bolhão in Porto, it is worth the trip alone, just for a visit to that magical shop that comes alive in the holiday season.
Roasting chestnuts - Christmas in a shell.
Octopus, salt cod, eggs, potatoes, portuguese cabbage and carrots - acquired tastes but now I love them.
(On the 25th, all the leftovers of these chopped up and fried off as roupa velha (old clothes)  - a tasty way to avoid food waste. Sometimes leftovers are the best part of a meal).
Mid-way through the Consoada feast,  we usually take a break, before settling in again for christmas cake, rabanados (a cinnamon french toast), aletria (angel hair pasta in a form of custard), leite creme (portuguese creme brulee), arroz doce with loads of cinnamon (rice pudding), bolo rei (kings cake - a yeasty sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts), almond paste desserts, chocolates and loads more.

None of this would mean anything without family around the table to share it with as we finish off with Sueca or Lerpa (cut throat family card games). It is off to bed with a full stomach and heart as I will rise at 5am to start to make bread and breakfast for my other family at Tribulum restaurant.

My favourite day to work is the 25th December. People are so grateful when you put your heart and soul into it. My challenge is to always try to present a meal as good as my mother would on this special day. One day I will achieve it.