Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Portuguese Special Occasions


The predominant religion of Portugal is Roman Catholic.

Every town has its special legends. saints, and festivities concerning every aspect of the seasons, the land, family occasions, and religion. In fine weather almost anything becomes excuse enough for a family outing that probably includes relatives, neighbors, and ample provisions of fresh breads, cheeses, cured hams, cold roasted chickens, boned and stuffed suckling pigs, salted herrings, and of course huge wicker-covered jugs of fine homemade or local wines.

Everything wild in Portugal is usually called “brave” or “royal” so a gathering that later turns into a party hut is ostensibly for the purpose of branding young bulls may be called fcsta brava; while a dish of wild duck may be called paw real, recalling the days when all wild game was strictly for royalty to enjoy. It is well to remember that the Portuguese brava does not mean “brave” but “wild.” Sometimes Portuguese may refer in faltering English to a young girl as being “brave” when they really mean that her dress and manner indicate her to be “wild” – at least by Portuguese standards, which tend to be conservative.

Any part of outdoor work that requires several hands is also turned into a special occasion. Gathering olives or grapes, shucking fresh corn, treading grapes for wine, in fact most rural jobs that others may consider simply as work, the Portuguese turn into a pleasure by working and singing, enjoying a meal of perhaps broa and caldo verde, then finishing with extra wine, sweets, and much music and dance.

An example of this is the esfolhadc, the party for corn shucking. With everyone in best clothes, the work proceeds seriously enough until someone finds a cob of red corn and then the fun begins: the lucky holder of the red cob gets to kiss all the ladies present, or vice versa.

Incidentally corn is an important crop in Portugal, hut not just for reasons of fun or food. The thinnings are fed to the cattle, coarsest stalks are used to bed cattle while the emptied cobs are saved and dried to use as fuel.

In the summer months, especially in the North, there is an almost continuous round of fairs and special pilgrimages called ronwrios. Church services and processions are interspersed with feasting, singing and dancing, ornate decorations and often fireworks.

One of the more interesting festivals, the Feast of Tabitleiros, is held every three to five years in the town of Tomar. Girls march in processions with huge layered headdresses made of loaves of bread decorated with wheat sheaves, flowers, and ribbons. The clergy follow bearing richly decorated silver crowns on small black pillows and several young bullocks bring up the end. Liter the cattle are slaughtered and portions of meat and breads from the headdresses are distributed to the poor of the area.

Country fairs sell everything from pottery and ribbons to boots and donkeys, hut the most celebrated of all is the Feast of St. Martin held in mid-November in Golega. It is a horse fair and a national occasion, a spectacle of Lisbon sociedade, visiting dignitaries and royalty, army horsemen, cal,- alheiros who fight the hulls on horseback, and the great horse breeders of Ribatejo and Alentejo, dressed in their special attire of trim gray jacket and trousers and the wide gray flat-brimmed hats. Each group dresses in its finest, with the horses prancing in their best manner and everyone there to see everyone else. Nearby dining rooms are ready with fine foods and wine always on tap.

All Saints’ Day, November 1, always brings with it memories of that same day in 1755 when almost three-quarters of Lisbon crumbled in a brief but violent earthquake. Then as now it is a solemn day set aside for quiet church services and memorials for all who died. After services, street vendors sell broas dos santos, saints’ cakes and other sweets, a brief reminder of the sweeter side of life.

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