Introduced to Portugal by the Confeitaria Nacional in Lisbon in the 19th century, bolo rei has become synonymous with Christmas and is Portugal’s answer to the German stolen or the Italian Panettone.
During the Christmas season there is nothing like going to your favourite pastelaria and arriving home with a beautifully fresh bolo rei in a box. The cake is a fruit cake flavoured with Port wine and other alcoholic drinks, topped with nuts, fruits and sugar.
In the days before obsessive health and safety laws, bolo rei had two hidden surprises inside… a gift (“brinde”) (small toy, metal figure or sometimes a gold coin) and a dried fava bean. Getting one or the other in your slice of bolo rei was seen as an omen of luck (if you got the brinde) or lack of it if you got the fava bean as you’d be expected to buy the next bolo rei!
Even without these surprises, bolo rei making is surrounded with mystique and secrecy as each maker developed their own recipe and keeps it like a precious secret. We were lucky to be let into some of these secrets when we visited Capuchinha in Viseu. This pastelaria, a stone’s throw from Rossio, the main plaza in Viseu, has become renowned for having the best bolo rei and its fame now extends well beyond Viseu!
We tasted the magic combination of flavourful drinks that goes into the dough and even tried to roll our own dough using the traditional elbow technique to shape the whole in the middle. We had modest results and decided to hand over to owner Dona Teresa and the 15 specialists who work in Capuchinha to produce over 100 kg of bolo rei (and bolo rainha, a version without fruit toppings) every single day!