Christmas in Portugal is the perfect excuse to do what we like to do best in the country: to sit down at a table with friends and family enjoying excellent food and wines without any time constraints. We would even dare say that every Portuguese person is born a foodie and this season of the year is just the perfect time to indulge!
Christmas is one of the most celebrated dates in Portugal, as it is in other countries of Catholic Christian tradition. It is the time when family members get together to celebrate and it also has its own particularities, especially at the table. Let us guide you on a gastronomic journey through Portugal and the best that the country’s cuisine has to offer during the Christmas season, to both all those who are here and to those who visit. Because, honestly, is there any better way to really get to know a country other than sitting at a table and enjoying its food?
The Christmas Calendar
Although the country has a Catholic tradition, the truth is that the celebration of Christmas goes a long way beyond any religious conviction or strict agenda. Generally speaking, the month of December is a month of commemoration as there are 3 national holidays in December, in Portugal, and only one of them is Christmas-related.
From the beginning of the month, you will feel great enthusiasm with the approaching of Christmas. Every town and city in the country has its own way of celebrating the season, whether it is by simply decorating the streets using light and Christmassy motifs, or in some regions, by holding colorful Christmas markets selling arts and crafts or by lighting a big wood fire in the main square for a community get-together. Some even have their own carols and hymns that are sung through the streets by the locals or community dinners, where food is served to everyone, especially to those in need.
After many a month of dinners and present exchanging with friends and work colleagues, the evening of the 24th is when families come together to celebrate. The Christmas Eve dinner is, in some households, a unique event that gets everyone together at least once a year. Many people travel hours to attend: some from other parts of Portugal and thousands from abroad, as the Portuguese emigrants return home for the holidays.
The presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve, usually after midnight, and some families attend the mass, called Missa do Galo, before it. The 25th of December is a day to just sit and relax, enjoying good food and wines, with friends and family. Family groups move from one household to the next, as they try to visit all their beloved ones in a 24h celebration marathon! Some restaurants will offer Christmas lunches and parties, but you will find that the majority of stores and businesses is closed and people are celebrating indoors. Christmas is definitely a time of partying and compassion, friendship, and excellent food in Portugal!
To each, their Christmas food!
Cod seems to be the king of Christmas in Portugal, but even so, there are regions in the country where other dishes take the first choice. Let us tell you about the traditional Christmas recipes from every part of the country, from the Algarve, in the South, to Trás-os-Montes, in the far North East, going through the archipelagos of the Azores and of Madeira.
In the nine Azorean islands, inhabited in their early beginnings by different people with distinct origins, you will find a great diversity of traditional Christmas dishes. At dinner, you may either eat boiled codfish and vegetables, or chicken broth (made with rice), or chicken consomé (a chicken and vegetable broth). The ones with stomachs of steel might like to try the delicious torresmos (pig crackling) with yams and the morcela (a blood sausage) with sweet potatoes - the latter two dishes are traditional mainly on the island of São Jorge.
On Christmas day, the dishes served range from oven-roasted turkey and chicken with bread stuffing and giblets (in Terceira, Flores and São Miguel islands), to roasted chicken and lamb (São Jorge island), the traditional hotpot or cozido (Graciosa island), baked or stewed octopus (Terceira, Graciosa and Santa Maria islands), meat gravy with yams and dipped slices of wheat-bread (Pico island) or the squid Ribeiras-style. Meals have many courses and usually, there is always room for the funny-named dish roupa velha or “old clothes”, made with the leftovers of the codfish with vegetables from the previous day.
As far as desserts are concerned you will be spoilt for choice: there is the Christmas cake Bolo Rei (made with candied fruit), rice pudding, queijadas (small baked cheesecakes), and rice cakes (Graciosa island), sponge cake, walnut cake, orange cake, filhoses and coscorões (fried doughnut-like cakes sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon), rabanadas (a kind of french toast) and dried figs.
To bring everything down, do what the Azoreans do and try some homemade liqueurs (some made of mulled wine and milk liqueur), cinnamon brandy and Port Wine. What a feast!
Given the island’s mild climate all year round and the strong traditions still very much alive here, the people in Madeira like to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The real event is the mass and the gatherings after it, so they eat lighter dishes at Christmas Supper - either chicken soup made with rice, or Carne de Vinha de Alhos (marinated pork meat) sandwiches.
The lunch served on Christmas day is much more complete and usually one of the previous day's dishes is repeated - Carne de Vinha de Alhos. But this time it is not served on bread. The repetition is more than justified, as preparing it is a rather laborious process: the meat needs to marinate for at least three days in a sauce of wine, garlic, vinegar, and bay leaf. Boiled codfish for Christmas lunch is also an option!
Madeirans love their Bolo de Mel and we bet that so will you! This is a cake made with many dried fruits and honey, whose recipe is not meant for just one cake - because it keeps for a long time, when you make Bolo de Mel, you make an enormous batch and share it around! As it is a heavy cake, lighter fruit desserts are added, like fruit salad, passion fruit pudding, tangerines, pineapple, and also the "fruto delicioso” or delicious fruit, a kind of pineapple-banana. An original Christmas menu for sure!
Porto and Minho
In the North West part of the country, including Porto city, boiled cod is king at Christmas Eve dinner! But the fish is prepared in more ways than one. The potatoes should be big so they not crumble and cooked with the peel, the kale should be firm, with large sections, and the codfish should be thick. All of this is drizzled with olive oil that has previously been heated with crunchy onion rings and cumin. Octopus is also a very popular alternative and it is prepared in the same way as cod. You need to try baked octopus with a garlic and olive oil sauce before you determine whether you like octopus: tastes amazing and is so much softer than you may initially think! In rural Minho, at the end of the meal, the table is not cleared so that the souls and angels may be satiated too. Isn’t that a beautiful idea?
The lunch on the next day has Roupa Velha (old clothes or old rag), one of the Portuguese traditional dishes, and it couldn't be simpler. The leftover cabbage, potatoes, cod, eggs, and carrots from the day before are cut into pieces and heated in a frying pan with olive oil. In addition, it is also customary to eat roast kid and turkey.
Desserts in this region are the highlight of the meal and the Minhotos have their own ideas on these! They say that supper is not supper unless you drink warm wine and/or eat the “wine soup”. To make it, hot red wine is flavored over an open fire with sugar or honey and cinnamon. The soups are made with pieces of bread or cornbread soaked in this wine mixture. As for sweets, the delicious rabanadas take first place at the table. These are French toast-style slices of bread topped with wine, honey, or milk (also called brown slices), and then sprinkled with sugar or syrup. Also traditional are the sonhos: deep-fried puffed pumpkin dumplings; filhoses: fried dough slices sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon; rice pudding; pumpkin and spaghetti-squash jam; and mexidos: a mixture of sugar, bread, and dried fruit boiled in water. Let´s just say you will need to forget about your diet for at least 24h!
Trás-os-Montes and the North East
The traditional recipes have cod and octopus as the main ingredients. We can’t get enough of them! They can be boiled and accompanied by potatoes and cabbage, but octopus fillets, codfish cakes, and fried codfish can be made too. Besides that, in some houses, you can also eat fried hake or conger.
On the lunch of December 25th, similarly to what happens in Minho and other parts of the country, you eat the Roupa Velha, made from the leftovers of the cod boiled with vegetables the previous day. In addition, roasted meat dishes are also traditional, usually goat, lamb, or turkey.
The sweets table is filled with custard milk, rice pudding, rabanadas, filhoses, sonhos, pão de ló (sponge cake), farófias (a fluffy egg white-based dessert, drizzled with a sauce made with milk, egg yolk, sugar, cinnamon, and lemon) and the Bolo Rei, which in some cases is replaced by the Bolo Inglês, an English style fruit cake, also with dried fruit. A table that definitely worth a few selfies to be posted on your social media!
Lisbon and the River Tagus (Tejo) Region
The Lisbon and Tagus Valley area brings together several typical recipes from various parts of the country, brought by the migratory flow of the 20th century. At supper, like in most regions of the country, boiled codfish with vegetables is an absolute must, but here roast turkey is also very popular. On the 25th, roast kid, turkey, or lamb are present at the table for everyone’s delight.
Desserts are eaten all day long and these include the famous Bolo Rei and the rabanadas which here are called fatias douradas (golden slices). But also the traditional filhoses, sonhos, aletria, azevias and the extravagant lampreia de ovos (egg lamprey) which consists of raw egg and sugar strings shaped like a funny-looking lamprey! The Lisboners’ sense of humor is endless and extends to the table even at Christmas!
Cod, either boiled or baked, is the favorite at the tables of Alentejanos in the missadura - the Alentejo’s Christmas Eve Supper. On the day after the Midnight Mass, is typically served roasted rooster. Some people, however, prefer roast lamb.
When it comes to sweets, in Alentejo we eat the well-known filhoses, milk custard, and coscorões. In addition, the azevias de grão: triangle or rectangle-shaped sweets filled with a mixture of mashed chickpeas, sugar, lemon, egg, and cinnamon; the nogado: dough made with flour, eggs, olive oil, cut into small cylinders, which are drizzled in a honey syrup; and the encharcadas: egg and sugar-based sweets, burned on top, similar to crème brûlée – all of these are traditional Christmas sweets in this area. A cuisine made of simple and very fresh ingredients has always been the staple of the Alentejo.
Being used to living between land and sea, the Algarvian people always have two options for Christmas dinner: one of meat, like galo de cabidela, a rooster and rice stew made with the animal’s blood; and the other one of fish, like boiled codfish. But before that, usually as a starter, clams and cockles are served.
In the southernmost region of Portugal, the lunch on the 25th is much about the leftovers from the night before, and in some households, they also serve roasted lamb or turkey. In some areas, suckling pig is a favorite though.
Despite the much time spent around the main courses, there is always room for desserts. To the filhoses, rabanadas, sonhos and leite creme (the milk custard), the Algarvians add the almond tart, the empanadilhas, very similar to azevias, but the filling is made with sweet potato hence they are also called pastéis de batata doce; the encharcadas, imported from the Alentejo; and the Morgado de Amêndoa, a rich mix of egg strings, sugar and almonds. A colorful Christmas is what we call it!
We are all about food!
Portuguese people are SO proud of their food that saying food is a cultural denominator is the least. People are passionate about their family recipes and traditional foods. So much so, that one common thing heard among Portuguese emigrants is that what they miss the most is their food and that they miss it like they miss their own kin. This is also true for everyone in Portugal though! Now add Christmas celebrations to this feeling and you will get quite a good understanding of what exactly the word “home” means for the Portuguese! Care to join the family for dinner?