On my return journey from Figueira da Foz on the N111 a while back I caught a fleeting glimpse of the words Doces Conventuais which made me hit the brakes and for the Wookie to bash his head on the dashboard. Where I’m from, Doces Conventuais means Emergency Stop.
One might be forgiven for mistaking the cafés on the roadside of the N111 at Tentúgal for ordinary truckie stops. There are about 5 or 6 altogether on a strip of about 500m. A few are plain ordinary looking cafés and the others have slightly fancier facades. All sell the famous Pastéis de Tentúgal but there are two that offer rather more than just that.
For a start, the first one, A Pousadinha, has 5 different flavours of empada. Wha? An empada is a little pie, and we of Australian-Kiwi-English ancestry love pies. Normally empadas come in chicken flavour only, so to find a variety is really something in itself. None of the flavours is beef, or beef and kidney, or beef and onion, or beef onion bacon and cheese, but let’s not quibble. Let’s be happy there are duck pies, and piglet pies, and seafood pies. Tentúgal discovery number one.
A bit further up the road towards Coimbra there’s a fancier sign with a large parking area for O Afonso, and this place is a revelation. Are we in Greenwich Village? Covent Garden? Double Bay? There is gourmet stuff everywhere: teas, cheeses, local wines, sweet exotica in nice bags with gold labels. The displays, photographic wallpaper and furniture are like, groovy and expensive. Lo and behold, interior design, right here, in the middle of nowhere.
And then, OMG look what’s on offer to eat. I myself am obliged to a Pastel de Tentúgal, but The One has to pace up and down the counter several times umming and ahhing as everything here seems new and original and extraordinarily delicious. Our yummies are served with a proper tea pot and a gorgeous coffee cup and saucer á la Caldas da Rainha.
And THEN the empresaria, Dona Margarida, invites me back-stage, to the kitchen. Ya. For the uninitiated, doces conventuais are pastries invented and created by nuns (and brothers) in convents (or monastries), often centuries-old recipes (the Tentúgals come originally from a closed Carmelite convent of the 16th Century). Frequently these recipes are kept secret (in this case because the convent is not open to outsiders, the nuns speak with no one) and they were given as welcoming gifts in honour of visiting bishopry or benefactors, as well as being stashed in the secret cavity of the nun’s bibles for midnight snackage.
The Tentúgals came to prominence in the 19th century, as the convent was running out of money they sold their goodies at the convent gates. They became popular with students at nearby Coimbra university, and I suppose, as the convent closed, the sweets then became commercialised. Pastéis de Tentúgal can be found around the country at the more serious fabrico proprio pastelarias, but for the real experience you have to come here.
The village of Tentúgal is a turn off the N111, and what a little treasure it is. It’s so cute that it made The One angry. “I want to live here” he said, tearfully. It’s the way little villages should be. What makes it so is that it’s really old, first referred to in print in 980 but then taken under the wing and developed in the 11th century by a dude named Dom Sesnando. A lot of old buildings have stayed. This Sesnando Davides, by the way, built castles at Coimbra, Lousã, Montemor-o-Velho, Penacova and Penela. He’s a guy that got things happening.
I was trying to find the 16th century Carmelite convent – which is tucked away in a little square and distinguishable by a checked hat on its roof. (If you do want to see inside the convent, hot tip, the Dona of Casa Armenio is good to call upon, or else start with Margarida at O Afonso, or even there’s an office opposite the Igreja Misericórdia. Actually it’s hard to find someone who will not want to oblige in Tentúgal). But en route to the convent there are a few very impressive little churches worth looking in at. The first is the Igreja da Misericórdia, built in 1583. The Casa da Misericórdia in Tentúgal, I was told by the local historian, was the second to be established after Lisbon. The Casa is one of the longest running charitable institutions in the world, establish by Queen Leonor in 1498 who recognised the need for someone to look after Lisbon’s orphans, widows, druggies and useless. And they also run Portugal’s national lottery and have a special place in our hearts for the hope they give to all of us.
The church is very simple and the reredos is carved from wood – the figures are quite unsophisticated but still hold some colour: each scene depicts a story from the bible for the illiterate masses.
Similarly simple and decorated in wood is the Capela Nossa Senhora dos Olivais. It is very cute indeed with naïve and humble statuary.
Now it’s time for dinner. Casa Armenio has something of a reputation for its roast duck and I’m not sure that anyone orders anything else when they come here. The One, who is something of a connoisseur of rissóis de leitão (piglet rissoles, mate) was almost in tears again because Casa Armenio’s are that good. This is a damn fine restaurant. It has atmosphere and conviviality, it’s not pretentious but it feels a bit special, the food is excellent and we had to have three desserts. I’m tempted to say it’s my second favourite restaurant in Portugal (for the first favourite, see Braga). Tentúgal discovery number five.
But where’s the gorgeous guesthouse? Anyone?