Science

Meet the Sweet Sea Monster of Portuguese Christmas

Many families in Portugal celebrate Christmas around a table filled with cakes, biscuits, dried fruit, and good wine. Among the treats, they will likely have bolo rei (“king’s cake”), a crown-shaped cake decorated with crystallized fruit; sonhos, orbs of crispy-yet-airy fried dough; and rabanadas, a Portuguese version of french toast covered with sugar and cinnamon. In some regions, another treat will appear: a curved, eel-shaped mound of egg yolks, sugar syrup, and almonds that will stare out at diners with candied-fruit eyes and a big smile. This is lampreia de ovos, a dessert that glorifies a 360-million-year-old sea monster.

Lampreys are parasitic fish with long, scaleless bodies and gaping mouths that contain multiple rows of teeth, which they use to guzzle the blood of their hosts. While this might not sound appetizing, the lamprey has long been regarded in Portugal (and much of Europe) as a culinary delicacy. More than 2,000 years ago, the Lusitani and Romans both consumed lamprey, and Apicius’s De Re Coquinaria, the oldest known cookbook, name-checks the fish.

During the Middle Ages, the lamprey reemerged as a prestige food. A rare, seasonal fish that was geographically restricted to the rivers where it came to reproduce, the lamprey’s limited availability made it a symbol of status and power. The wealthy impressed their guests by serving elaborate lamprey pies, stews, galantines, and blood sauces, especially as a replacement for meat during Lent.

The lamprey doesn't exactly look the part of culinary delicacy.
The lamprey doesn’t exactly look the part of culinary delicacy. NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/CC BY-SA 2.0

Such feasting was “an endowment of the rich, the enlightened, and the noble,” according to Mário Varela Gomes, author of the book Divine Lamprey. Since lamprey was high-status food, it was considered improper for serfs to consume it. In 1423, Portuguese King João I took this exclusivity to the extreme, establishing the death penalty for anyone who was caught fishing for lamprey without permission.

Considering the lamprey’s revered culinary status in Portugal, “it is no wonder, then, that someone had the idea to turn such a prized item into a dessert,” says Professor João Pedro Gomes. A historian from Universidade de Coimbra who researches the history of sweets in Portugal, Gomes says it’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when a chef decided to create a dessert based on the lamprey. However, he does point to the rise of animal-shaped sweets (such as ornate sugar sculptures) during the Renaissance as the possible roots of a lamprey-shaped treat.

An 1884 painting depicts lampreia de ovos.
An 1884 painting depicts lampreia de ovos. Lucas de Almeida Marrão/Public Domain

Another chronological clue: The culinary techniques used to make lampreia de ovos were developed during the 1600s. “We have registries of the basic egg manipulation techniques used in this sweet in a cookbook from the late 17th century,” Gomes says. The elementary components of lampreia are capas de ovos, sheets of egg yolk cooked in sugar syrup and rolled around a filling. It is not clear precisely when or where a chef decided to shape these sheets into a lamprey form, but some historians hypothesize that it likely occurred in Central Portugal (such as Coimbra, Chamusca, or Tentúgal), where lampreia de ovos is commonly found today.

The earliest known recipe for lampreia de ovos comes from a 1903 cookbook. But references to the treat date back earlier, including a mention in the 1878 novel O Primo Basílio and an appearance in a rather elegant painting from 1884. When instructions for assembling for lampreia de ovos appeared in Tratado Completo de Cozinha e de Copa in 1903, its recipe consisted of a paste of almond and sugar, capas de ovos, and, as the eyes and mouth, raisins and red jam.

Some versions of lampreia de ovos look especially festive.
Some versions of lampreia de ovos look especially festive. confeitariadalvor/Used With Permission

Luísa Garrido is part of a family who has been making lampreias de ovos for five generations in Chamusca, one of the towns where the dessert might have originated. The family uses a recipe from Garrido’s great-great grandmother, Ana Cuca.

Even when Garrido was a young girl, only the upper classes could afford such an elaborate dessert (lampreia de ovos requires at least two dozen eggs and takes about a day to make). “I still remember my great-grandmother assembling it,” says Garrido. “She was a widow, and became a cook and sweet maker in order to support her family; she used to bake lampreia de ovos for wealthy families on special occasions.” In Chamusca, some sweet-makers produced lampreia not only for Christmas and other festivities, but also as a means of paying for house-calls from the doctor.

After 1986, the year in which Portugal joined the European Union, the general population’s living standards gradually began to improve. “Once the people started having more economic power, they started to emulate the behavior of the higher classes, and also their gastronomic traditions”, explains Gomes. Their Christmas tables, too, became more luxurious, with lampreia de ovos becoming a more widespread tradition.

The egg threads at the bottom of the lamprey are also known as
The egg threads at the bottom of the lamprey are also known as “angel hair.” Courtesy of Luísa Garrido

One consequence of this democratization of the dessert was mass production. Confectioners like Garrido are quick to point out that their homemade versions are far superior to industrialized ones sold in supermarkets. Garrido admits that her versions are more expensive (25–30€ per kilogram), but she says its high price is determined by the amount of time needed to prepare it. “The full process takes around 24 hours to complete,” she says.

Even if it is such a laborious process, Garrido refuses to resort to any shortcuts that might compromise the quality of the sweet. To her, time and love are the key ingredients. Her clientele values this dedication as well. “The taste is totally different from the industrial version,” says Carolina Laurentino, one of Garrido’s customers. “I really appreciate the flavor of the almond filling, and the carefulness involved in its presentation. Even if its price is quite higher when compared with the supermarket one, it is definitely worth every single penny.”

Lampreia de Ovos

1. Make the Capas de Ovos

Ingredients

10 egg yolks + 1 egg white

250 grams of sugar

Instructions

1. Heat the sugar up to the point where it forms fine threads (101ºC or 214ºF).
2. Pass the egg yolks and the egg white through a silver sieve and mix.
3. Put a tablespoon of the sugar syrup in a frying pan on low heat; when it starts to boil, add a tablespoon of the egg mixture.
4. Boil the mixture again, turn it over, and remove to a heatproof serving plate

2. Make the Folhas de Hóstia (“Host Leaves”)

These thin wafers known as “host leaves” will form the base of the lamprey shape.

Ingredients

500 grams of wheat or whole flour
250 milliliters of water
50 milliliters of olive oil
salt, as needed

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 170ºC (~340–350ºF).
2. Mix all the ingredients until you obtain a smooth mixture.
3. Stretch the dough until it has a very thin consistency (almost transparent).
4. Cut with a round cutter.
5. Put the folhas de hóstia on a lightly greased baking tray and place them in the oven.
6. As roasting times vary, check often to see when the “leaves” have roasted, in order to prevent them from burning.

3. Make the Lampreia de Ovos

Ingredients

24 egg yolks
600 grams of caster sugar
200 grams of peeled almonds
6 capas de ovos (see above)
2 raisins
1 teaspoon of red fruit jam
Folhas de hostia, as needed (see above)

Instructions

1. Put the sugar in a pot, add just enough water to make it wet, and heat it to about 117ºC (~243ºF); add the peeled and grated almonds and set it aside to cool.
2. Pass the egg yolks through a sieve and add them to the mixture.
3. Heat it again on low heat until it reaches about 113ºC (~235ºF); remove from heat, set it aside to cool, and give it the desired shape by putting it over the folhas de hostia.
4. Cover with the capas de ovos, the bigger ones should cover the head and the smaller ones for the tail.
5. Decorate using the raisins as eyes and the red fruit jam as the mouth.

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