Angels' delight

In Portugal, the humble egg is a way to celestial ecstasy. At Easter, people beat yolks into sweet, sugary, fluffy desserts.
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Say egg to a Briton and he will probably say bacon. Say it to a Portuguese and a happy smile will suffuse his face. Aha, eggs as in sonhos (dreams) and saudades (longings) and papos de anjo (angel's breasts). Eggs as in virgins' sighs, maidens' thighs and nun's belly.

Say egg to a Briton and he will probably say bacon. Say it to a Portuguese and a happy smile will suffuse his face. Aha, eggs as in sonhos (dreams) and saudades (longings) and papos de anjo (angel's breasts). Eggs as in virgins' sighs, maidens' thighs and nun's belly.

Evocatively named egg desserts, puddings, pastries, custard tarts and cakes are part of the fabric of Portugal and never more so than at Easter, a festive eggs-travaganza. Today, when our children are overdosing on milk chocolate eggs, most Portuguese families will be tucking into a huge sponge cake, a pao-de-lo, a kilo in weight, the size of a large scatter cushion. It will glow with a brilliant Day-Glo hue from the yolks, Portuguese chickens having been fed a diet of yellow maize. It tastes like heavenly fluff.

In the UK we may have lost our taste for such eggy treats, partly because we hold back on both sugar and eggs. For 20 years nutritionists have warned that the yolks are loaded with cholesterol and that we shouldn't eat more than three a week. Also, of course, eggs have had such a bad press. Edwina Curry will be remembered less for her bonkbusters than for her part in exposing the egg scandal of the 1980s. She was junior food minister when she blew the whistle on salmonella in chickens. Jane Grigson, doyenne of food writers at the time, announced that she would not recommend the use of eggs in her columns until salmonella had been removed from our laying flocks. Sadly, she did not live to see this happen.

It is only this year, a whole decade on, that the poultry industry has cleaned up its act, inoculating birds against salmonella, and can say of its Lion Quality eggs that they are at last safe to eat. (It has to be said, though, that only raw and not fully cooked eggs posed a threat to pregnant mothers, small children and invalids.)

Back in Portugal, meanwhile, eggs and not chocolate have remained the accepted Easter luxuries. The rest of the cuisine may be undistinguished (dried salt cod is the most familiar item on the menu), but when it comes to sticky, sugary, eggy confections the Portuguese have no equals.

Their love for such delicacies is virtually an article of faith, for convent nuns developed them at the end of the 15th century, when precious sugar was first imported. The port industry is also said to have played a part, diverting unwanted egg yolks their way, by-products of the whites they needed for refining wines.

The nuns continue to keep the tradition alive. The most lavish and expensive food book in Portugal, published only two years ago, is an illustrated tribute to these rich desserts, entitled Docaria dos Conventos de Portugal. Two famous Portuguese food historians, Alfredo Saramago and Manuel Fialho, contacted no fewer than 120 convents across the country to collate and annotate more than 500 egg desserts.

Among the most famous are the sensationally sweet and luscious custard cream tarts, called pasteis de nata, which are sold in Lisbon coffee houses. In the Antiga Casa de Pasteis de Belem, they bake 30,000 of them a day to sell in the shop or serve in the rabbit warren of small rooms, decorated with those splendid blue and white tiles, azulejos, which glorify so many public buildings.

In Porto, Portugal's second city and the home of port wine, George Sandeman, sixth-generation descendant of the founder of the port firm, introduced me to Dona Ildinha, who owns the top pasteleria in Amarante, close to the river Douro where the port wine vineyards climb the hills to spectacular effect.

In her ordinary-sized kitchen, three women make up to a dozen egg products, using permutations of a simple formula. Basically they beat egg yolks into simmering sugar syrup. They further enhance the finished product with yet more sugar and more egg yolk, with icing, with powdered sugar. Or they soak them in sugar syrup. Or glaze them with more yolks and sugar syrup. No one in Amarante would dream of visiting a friend without taking a little box of one or another of these with them.

Sometimes they add ground almonds to the mixtures. In season, other confections are made, such as tarts of orange and fig, quince and pumpkin, and even a cake made with sweetened bean purée.

The sweets have names which mean little to us, such as lerias, cavaca, sacilho, brisas de tamago (river breezes) and castanhas (chestnuts), which are marzipans glazed with a blow-lamp to get a bronzed effect. One unusual confection is fios (threads), made from beaten yolks which have been swirled into simmering, dense sugar syrup, using a special strainer, a tin can with several funnels. They look like orange noodles when cooked and are often used as cake decorations.

The next day I visited a renowned pasteleria in Porto where, on the very premises, using the same ovens and the same recipe, they have been baking the traditional Easter sponge cake, pao-de-lo, for more than 100 years.

The secret of its success is the exact proportion of the three sole ingredients, eggs, sugar and flour, a secret passed down by successive family members. Less secret is the effort involved. They beat egg yolks (of a brilliant hue) and some whole eggs together with sugar for 60 minutes.

Traditionally this was a hand operation, the mixture placed into a deep wooden container and tossed with large wooden paddles, but these days they use a patiently slow electric motor. The finest soft flour, a rich creamy colour, is incorporated half-way through.

The baking utensils are round ceramic bowls in which stand smaller ceramic moulds, like upturned pudding basins. These in turn are lined with buttered paper. The batter is poured in, and other ceramic bowls, identical to the base, are placed on top.

The all-female staff push them into the oven, a dozen at a time, where they bake for an hour until set and a golden brown. There isn't a family in Porto with any pride which isn't sitting down to one of these today.

The high point of my visit was the chance to taste one of the most adored of all Portugal's sticky egg sweets, toucinho de ceu, for which the classic book of convent desserts gives no fewer than 16 recipes.

The name means heavenly pork or, more prosaically, bacon of heaven, which may (or may not) relate to its appearance when cut into slices like thick rashers.

It was quite the best dessert (of very many) that I got to eat on my visit. George Sandeman had taken me to meet Miguel Castro Silva, Porto's most modern and innovative cook, whose restaurant, The Bull and Bear, is housed in the new stock exchange there. Unusually, Miguel, 39, worked in the fashion and music businesses before turning his hand to cooking.

His toucinho is a family recipe which he has tickled in order to temper its intense richness. For example, he breaks step by adding the bitter skins of some almonds to balance the sugary richness and also some breadcrumbs to reduce the stickiness a little. It was particularly fine accompanied by a glass of George's ruby port. "The only drink in the world which can stand up to the sweetness of heavenly bacon," he says, beaming. But then, pouring a glass of tawny port, he adds: "But this isn't bad either."

George's advice to those of us committed to celebrating an egg-less British Easter is that ruby port is also, indisputably, the best drink to go with chocolate.

Here are recipes for three of the best desserts I ate in Portugal. Miguel's toucinho, a pao-de-lo sponge cake similar to the Porto classic, and a custard tart, pasteis de nata de Belem, adapted from Edite Vieira's authoritative The Taste of Portugal, which is republished this month by Grub Street, £12.99.

Miguel's toucinho de ceu

Serves 8

375g/13oz sugar

187ml/61?2fl oz water

250g/9oz whole almonds

7 eggs (3 whole plus 4 yolks)

25g/1oz fine breadcrumbs

Butter for greasing tin and paper

Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Prepare the almonds. Reserving half of them intact, pour boiling water on to the remainder and when cool enough to handle, skin them. Mop dry. In a coffee grinder or blender whizz to rough grains, but not a fine powder. In a saucepan, boil sugar and water to simmering point (225F/106C). Stir in the almonds and cook till syrup bubbles up. Remove from heat. Lightly mix yolks and whole eggs before beating them into the sugar syrup mixture. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Allow to cool a little.

Butter a shallow tin (about 24cm by 20cm, 4cm deep), dust with flour and line it with buttered greaseproof or oven paper also dusted with flour. Pour In the mixture. Bake for 45 mins to one hour till browned and crisp. The centre should still be moist when tested with a skewer. Cool on a wire rack.

Easter pao-de-lo sponge cake

12 eggs (12 yolks, 4 whites)

250g/9oz sugar

150g/5.5oz flour

Using an electric blender, beat eggs and sugar for 30 minutes. Gradually add the flour and continue beating for 30 minutes more.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 475F/250C/Gas 9.

Using a wide circular cake tin, invert an oven-proof cup or similar in the centre (preferably one without a handle). Cover this undulating base with sheets of buttered greaseproof or oven paper. Fill with the sponge mixture. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. After about 15 minutes, or as soon as the sponge has risen, reduce the heat and cover with foil. Turn out on to a wire tray to cool.

Pasteis de nata de Belem

Bakes 12 to 16

Should be eaten the day they are made in order to enjoy the contrasting crunchiness of the pastry and melting softness of the filling. You could make your own puff pastry, but it's so easy to buy good frozen pastry you don't need to.

500g/1lb puff pastry

140g/5oz single cream

4 egg yolks

75g/2.5oz caster sugar

Pre-heat oven to 475F/250C/Gas 9.

In a saucepan, beat yolks and sugar till thick. Beat in the cream gradually, and carefully heat, stirring till mixture thickens into a custard. Be careful not to overheat or it will turn to scrambled egg. Remove at once and cool completely. Roll out the puff pastry to a 22cm x 18cm (10 x 8in) oblong and make into a swiss roll shape. Cut into slices 2cm (3?4in) thick. This is a clever technique because instead of expanding upwards, the puff pastry pushes outwards, making a deep-cup shape for the tart. Spread the rounds into patty tins, pressing down with both thumbs.

Fill each with a tablespoon of custard mixture. Bake till pastry is golden and top is browned (around 15 minutes). The tarts are traditionally dusted with cinnamon mixed with icing sugar, but it isn't necessary.

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