Friday, July 01, 2011

Creamy pastries in Portugal

"So why is it called bolas de Berlim?", I asked Paula, a local Portuguese whom I met at the hostel in Porto. "It didn't come from Germany, did it?".

Paula laughed, then replied "No, of course not. Because it has two halves, with the thick cream in the middle. Sort of like East and West separated by the wall".

This bizarre explanation with outdated political reference notwithstanding, the bolas de Berlim is just one of many sweet treats in pastelarias' display cases that entice passers-by to ogle and stop for a quick snack.

While critics might harp that Portuguese cuisine doesn't rise to the same meteoric heights as their larger Iberian neighbor, in the sweets department it's definitely no slouch. 

My personal favorite is the pasteis de nata, sweet custard tarts topped with burnt caramel and surrounded by a flaky crust. Four cafes lined the seven-minute walk from my hostel in Lisbon to the metro stop, so every day I would venture inside a different one, order two pasteis with cafe con leche, and devour them standing at the counter.  Hard to beat that for a mid-morning snack.

In Aveiro, a traditional pastry called ovo mole still rules. Shaped in different forms such as shells, fish, and clams, these treats have a very thin wafer-like exterior, and a very sweet inside made of egg yolks and sugar. 

I found the ovos moles quite addictive, and found an excuse to pop one into my mouth every few minutes, only to discover to my chagrin that my newly-purchased box of twelve is now empty. Oh well, time to go back to the store for more.

There are lots more Portuguese pastries that I haven't tasted, possibly for the better,  health-wise. Just these three alone brought my sugar intake to stratospheric levels, and only lots of walking offset the calories (how many, I didn't want to know) that were consumed. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking Portuguese food isn't great, but cast your eyes towards the pastelarias.