The snows of almond flowers
There is actually an Almond Blossom Route that is magical to travel in February and March to see fields with touches of white and pink, when the wind blows there is a swirl looking like it is snowing. This is a unique and unforgettable natural phenomenon. The almond is one of the fruits most widely cultivated in the Douro region, in the municipal districts of Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Mogadouro, Torre de Moncorvo and Vila Nova de Foz Côa. The almond is the most widely cultivated fruits in the Douro region, with 60% of the Portuguese nut production. They are typically grown side by side with olives and vines on the terraced hillsides of the Douro, which shelter them from cold winds.
Legend has it that the almond trees were found in Portugal even in the times of the Moors. A young Moorish king commanded the cultivation of the almond to gratify his Nordic princess, who missed her snowy homeland. When they flourished, the horizon was covered in a snow-like mantle, but with the advantages of not being cold and of filling the air with a sweet fragrance.
But the truth is they were originally from central and southwest Asia. Almonds became a staple food there that helped sustain the long journeys of nomadic tribes. Wild stands of almond trees grew near trade routes such as the Silk Road that connected central China with the Mediterranean. By 4,000 B.C. people were cultivating almond trees, which blossomed very well in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Now Spain is the second largest almond producer and Portugal is a minor international player not even in the top ten.
Most of the sweets have religious beginnings and names in Spain, Portugal and Sicily due to the fact they were made in religious convents. It is still known that you go to the convent to buy your deserts. My own wedding cake was from a Dominican Convent of cloistered Nun in Spain.
If I am correct the nuns used egg whites to starch their habits so they had to do something with the yolks, hence the famous Pastéis de Nata which you become addicted to in Portugal. It has to be the National food bit of Portugal. Fio de Ovos or Portuguese Eggs Threads again made with the yolks can be used as a topping or just eaten alone. A simple bite is triangular shape and is made of puff pastry, filled with cinnamon doce de ovos with a crisp sugar glaze crust. Bolas de Berlim are Portuguese donuts that are sliced in half, again filled with creamy egg-based custard. The Jesuita is composed of many layers of filo like pastry, it has kind of an egg “jam.” The shape of it mimics the frocks worn by the Jesuit priests.
But the best which is known in Northern Portugal as Tarte de Amendoa is very popular. And on the other side of the Minho valley in Galicia, it is called Tarta de Santiago. One bite and you’ll quickly fall in love with this dessert. Toucinho Do Céu literally translates to "Bacon from Heaven". This is a wonderful almond cake from the northeastern region of Porto. So, why does the name reference pork? Well, pork fat is used to make this cake. On the Spanish side they don’t use pork fat and it is actually gluten free. The last time I was in Santiago de Compostela, I went to the Benedictine Convent to get my Tarta.
Below I share the recipe.
Tarta de Santiago
1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
3 large eggs
Generous pinch of salt
½ t. almond extract
½ t. vanilla
2 ½ cups almond flour
3 T. demerara sugar (sprinkle on top before putting in the oven)
Bake at 350 for 55 minutes don’t under bake – it should have a deep brown crust. Place the Galician or Cross of Saint James on top and dust with confectioners sugar.
A Red Cross of Saint James with flourished arms, surmounted with an escallop, was the emblem of the twelfth-century Spanish military Order of Santiago, named after Saint James the Greater. It is also used as a decorative element on the Tarta de Santiago, a traditional Galician sweet.