The Portugal Years – Year 1: Our First Christmas

Roasted Chestnuts
Roasted Chestnuts

In November, the weather was rainy and cold. Black umbrellas, black clothes and long nights were the new normal. We moved from fall into winter. Few Portuguese homes had insulation, and none that I knew of had central heating.

I started baking more often to keep the house warm. There was a portable gas heater, but I was concerned about it using up all the oxygen. We layered our clothes according to the temperature. Our tea kettle whistled often and we made tea. Being newlyweds, we didn’t need a good excuse for extra cuddling for warmth. And that was when we learned not to combine making tea with, um, cuddling.

One liter of milk
One liter of milk

By mid-December long lines of people were waiting patiently for their bacalhau (dried codfish).  Boiled dried codfish is a Portuguese Christmas tradition.  That year it was scarce.

The cows went dry in December as was their custom. Until then, we had been buying fresh milk in disposable plastic bags. Our only milk resource after that was boxes of milk with a shelf life. That was a shock to my culinary expectations.

chestnuts roasting
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

There were comforts for the season. One was roasted chestnuts. The smell of them roasting was a come hither fragrance. I’d never had them before, I but took to them like an ant does to sugar. Along the streets the vendors had their little brazier of chestnuts. They were an inexpensive treat that came wrapped in a paper cone, satisfied your hunger and warmed your hands.

About a week before Christmas, Harry borrowed a car and we went looking for a Christmas tree. We found a long-needled pine tree that we thought would look nice in our apartment. The ceiling was high, so we picked a tall tree. Too tall as it turned out. We cut it down, but it still brushed the ceiling. The next job was to decorate. All we had was a handful of ornaments that my former students had given me. What we did have were hidden in the pine needles. But, as long as Harry had his favorite cookies, he was good.

I was looking forward to the holiday break from language school. I had plans to read  books, play with my Samantha cat and just kick back. Didn’t happen. Right before Christmas day, Harry announced that he was coming home with a family of Americans who had just arrived. They would be working with a missions organization in Portugal and needed somewhere to stay until they found a place to live.

They were some of the most delightful folks I have ever met, but I was selfish. I really didn’t want to share our first Christmas together with anyone. Eventually, I got over it. Mostly. It wasn’t long until we become friends with them. But Harry and I did talk about how important it is to make sure that we communicate with each other before making major decisions. (We still haven’t agreed the definition of “major decision”.)

One other memorable thing happened that winter. In December, color television came to Portugal. And color TV created a revolution. When the favorite Brazilian dramas turned up in living color, the women’s clothing industry began to sell lighter, brighter clothing. And there I sat with all of my new dark wardrobe. 😀

Dona Xepa, Brazilian Soap Opera
Dona Xepa, Brazilian Soap Opera

What is your most memorable holiday that you’ve experienced? Why? (It can be any holiday, not just Christmas.)


Pão por Deus (Bread for God or Bread in the Name of God)

One of the fun things about living in a country in which you did not grow up is discovering how much alike and yet how different your birth country is in comparison others. Holidays are no exception.

Pão por Deus almost mirrors what Americans call Halloween. However in Portugal, October 31 is Dia de Finados (Day of the Dead). This is the day that they pray for the souls of all of the dead to rest. In the old days, they processed to the graveyards and took food to eat at the graves of their dead.

In 1755, The Great Lisbon Earthquake (8.7 on the Richter Scale) destroyed a good portion of the city. The ruined section is now known as the Baixa Pombalina for the Marques de Pombal who was responsible for the task of reconstruction. People lost their homes and had no food in this disaster. Many of them walked the streets of Lisbon asking for bread in the name of God. Sixty thousand people died as a result of that earthquake and it created a tsunami about ten meters high. There was no discernible tectonic activity in the area at that time. (Want to know more?)

A new custom that began that day that has passed the test of time. Although it may vary from region to region, on November first children replay the aftermath of the earthquake. They take bags and go around to their neighbors’ homes early in the morning asking for “Pão por Deus.” Although originally the people were looking for bread, it is not uncommon now for people to give children cookies, candy, fruit and maybe even a coin.

Fun fact: In our second home in Portugal, one afternoon everything that was loose in our home was rattling or jangling. I thought at first that it was a big truck rumbling by the house, but soon realized it was an earth tremor. Before I could lose it, it was over.

What do you think about the custom of Pão por Deus? If you were going to begin a new holiday, what do you think you might like to do?

Pão por Deus
Pão por Deus

The Portugal Years – Year 1: Thanksgiving and My Curiosity (O dia de ação de graças)

The autumn days were pleasantly busy with language study and immersion in the Portuguese culture. We called family rarely –  it was very expensive. (And for the record, it took me a long time before I would even answer the phone  after I learned the proper way to greet someone: “Está?”(Are you there?) I was afraid they would expect me to understand them.  The temperatures crept down to “need a sweater and wool skirts.” And it rained often as is the custom of autumn weather in Portugal.

By the time November rolled around I was accustomed to purchasing meat from the butcher. In that shop where all of the bloody meat was hanging on hooks in the windows, I discovered that a pound of ground beef (ground on the spot) was a little less than a half of a Kilo. So, I asked for half a kilo to keep it simple. It took awhile to get used to it; it was very lean meat.

One of my adventures in cooking involved a cow’s tongue. (The cow was dead

Cow's Tongue
Cow’s Tongue

when I got the tongue in case you were worried). Like the elephant’s child, my curiosity had no end. I pulled out my trusty cookbook and fearlessly went where I’d never gone before. Harry got through that meal, but asked me politely to lose that recipe.

We lived near a farmer’s market that was open once or twice a week. Most of the food was produce – and it was lovely.


One stall caught my eye week after week. They sold rabbits. I knew I had a Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook that had a recipe for Hasenpheffer. One Saturday, my curiosity got the better of me again. I asked for 2 rabbits. The lady who owned the stall pulled two out of the cage, murdered killed them, and put them in a bag for me. I had a few queasy regrets as I carried the warm rabbits home in the bag. This experiment eventually turned out much better than the cow tongue. But I couldn’t bring myself to make it again. I did, however, start buying stewing hens when I wanted to make soup – I even put the eggs into the soup.

When Thanksgiving was just around the corner, I began looking at the turkeys in the butcher shop. They looked scrawny compared to the Butterball Turkeys I was used to eating. They were, however very good. (Long years later I learned about free range poultry – we never appreciated what we had when we had it.)  The Portugal team gathered together for the meal at our house. We were voted in because we had the most room and the biggest table. Everyone brought food that they liked when they celebrated Thanksgiving in the states. Of course we had turkey. Someone found a store that sold imported food and we had cranberry sauce. Sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, vegetables, pumpkin pie – all were there in abundance. And there was one thing I’d NEVER seen at a Thanksgiving meal. Our secretary was from Miami, and she brought deviled eggs.


Have you ever had any extraordinary food adventures? What do you like to have on the table for it to be Thanksgiving?

The Portugal Years – Year One: Price’s Pensão Residencial

Portuguese Hostel

When you live in a beautiful place with a delightful climate  and if it is in Europe you can depend on having visitors. If you have extra bedrooms as we did in our first home, you never know to whom you may be offering hospitality next.

Portugal fulfills all of those criteria, and the visitors did come. Family members came, friends came and people we’d never met came.  Occasionally, Harry and I considered naming our home Price’s Pensão Residencial (Price’s Hostel).

One of our first visitors was a young woman who had come to Portugal to do some art work for one of the mission organizations. She bunked on a mattress on the floor in one of the spare bedrooms. She did not want to share meals with us – asked us for to a shelf in our refrigerator so she could prepare her own meals.

A distant relative, Les Stouffer, came to visit us during our first year. He was our family’s perpetual bachelor, and had traveled all over the world but had not seen Portugal. He was an outstanding house guest and we enjoyed having him there.

One summer some basketball players came over from the states to do a basketball evangelism thing with the Portuguese teens. They slept on mattresses on the floor and I had to find my robe for the duration of their visit. It was the hottest summer we had while we were there.

One of our favorite visitors was a former student of mine. He was one of those unforgettable students that all teachers have in the course of their careers. He was smart, and had a great sense of humor (without which you really suffered in my classroom).

One Thursday I gave the students a social studies test on material we had spent three days reviewing. This student failed the test miserably. School policy was D and F grades required a parental signature on the offending test within three days.

On Monday afternoon, I got a phone call from his mother. She was greatly distressed, but I could not understand what she was saying. It sounded like, “We studied for the test all weekend.” I was terribly confused myself because I never administered a test to my students on Mondays and I told her so. She insisted.

When I realized she was talking about the social studies test, I tried to explain. She insisted that it was a test he took that day. When she finally heard me say, “He took that test on Thursday,” she still could not take it in. It took several  repetitions for her (and for me)  to understand that her fourth grade son had tried to scam us.

Our Daily Bread (Nosso pão de cada dia) – Part 2

In Portugal, the way to get through the day until lunch (almoço) is that Portugal has what the British call, “elevenses.” In Portugal, it’s “lanche.” Sandwiches, pastries, tea and coffee fill in the gap between breakfast and dinner, which is not served until after one p.m. or 2 p.m.

Back in the day, employers gave employees a two-hour lunch. If a family lived close to where they worked, the wife went home, cooked a hot meal and served it before returning to work. Many of the shops closed right down to give employees a chance to rest (sesta). After the meal, the women got to clean up while the men went to the town square to socialize and drink their brandy and coffee before returning to work.


These meals typically begin with some kind of soup. Each region has its own style of soup, and maybe more than one. The soups with which I am most familiar are these:

Sopa à Portuguesa (which was the only food my children were raised on and Canja, which is chicken soup. The links take you to a little bit of history and the recipes for these soups.

After soup, there may be a meat, sea food or chicken dish with French fries, boiled potatoes or rice, and a salad. Dessert is rare, and is more often fruit than sweets. On special occasions there may be some sweet pudding or cake.

Around 5 or 6  in the afternoon, it’s time for another snack break to hold people over until the evening meal. The evening meal (jantar) is served between 8 and 9 p.m. and is another hearty meal – maybe leftovers from the afternoon meal.

Would you be so stressed out if your days had some leisurely built-in breaks like this?

Our Daily Bread (Nosso pão de cada dia) Part 1

I always wondered how hard-working Europeans survived on the Continental Breakfast. Coffee and bread just never seemed to last until lunch. And in Portugal, lunch happens somewhere between 1 to 2 p.m.

Papo Seco
Papo Seco

When we lived in Portugal, the first thing we did in the morning was go to the bakery for a fresh supply of papa secos (see photo). We generally bought only enough for a day because they got stale quickly. We tore them apart, buttered them and seldom let them go bad. They were good with jam, cheese or almost anything that invites you to experiment.


Some days we went to a pasteleria – a bakery – for breakfast.

uma bola de berlim
uma bola de berlim

This kind of doughnut always called Harry’s name when we walked into the pasteleria. It is the Portuguese version of a cream filled doughnut. They blame it on Berlin. Very sweet. Like Harry.

Pão de leite
Pão de leite

This was my favorite bakery treat. It’s a rich sweet bread, and I usually asked for it buttered and stuffed with a slice of cheese.

mafra bread
Pão de Mafra

The Pão de Mafra is a a specialty of the village of Mafra. A version of sour dough bread, they use very little yeast and let it go “sour” before they shape it into a long loaf and bake it in a brick oven. It’s heavier than the other breads, but oh so filling. Eat it fresh as it comes out of the oven, or toast it the day after. Use it to sop up your soup if you like – and no one is looking.

Uma bica

What is  bread without coffee? This is a bica – the Portuguese expression of espresso. Strong. Froth on top. And if you do it right, it is sweet enough to keep the dentists in business for a decade. See that spoon? The coffee is strong enough for the spoon to stand up in the cup. Well, okay, I was exaggerating. But not by much 😀 Some like to drink a bica first thing in the morning to shock their brains awake.

Um Galão

For those who prefer a gentler awakening, let me introduce you to the galão, which translates as “gallon.” It holds a bica of coffee in the bottom of a glass that is then filled with hot, foaming milk. Would you call that a latté? Unless you specify otherwise, the coffee may be part coffee and part something like Postum. If you like coffee, you may not like the substitute.

Not a coffee person? Try chá de limão.

Lemon tea
Lemon tea

What do you eat for breakfast? Do you eat breakfast? Would this coffee and bread sort of thing be enough for you till the next meal?

Portuguese Cuisine: Grilled Sardines (Sardinhas Assadas)

Preparing fish is one of the Portuguese fine arts. With approximately half of the Portuguese border lying next to the Atlantic Ocean, this should not come as a surprise. Sardines are plentiful along the coast, and fortunately they do not put them in tins; they grill them.

Every summer pretty well every region of Portugal has its own sardine festival. Vendors set up their grills along the streets and cook the freshly caught fish. People buy and enjoy them.

It’s an easy recipe:

Season freshly caught sardines with salt, lemon juice and cilantro on the outside and the inside. Carefully place the fish on a very hot grill. Turn when the first side is a golden brown. When well cooked, place the grilled sardines on a platter and cover it with a “sauce.” Take two peeled and chopped tomatoes, three tablespoons of olive oil, crushed raw cloves of garlic to taste, thin slices of onion to taste, salt and pepper and the juice of a half of lemon. Sauté the onion and garlic then add to the other ingredients and mix lightly. Serve with grilled potatoes sprinkled with olive oil.

Grilled Sardines
Grilled Sardines

Do you like sardines or other fish?