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Jun 10, 2007 10:00 PM

The origin of Portuguese cuisine & Holy Spirit festa foods

This month the Portuguese hold the Festa of the Holy Spirit.

There are parades and Portuguese food like filhos (donuts), massa sovada (sweet bread) and sopa do Espírito Santo … a beef and bread soup that is served for free to everyone who attends.

I went to my first festa today in San Pablo, CA today.

First I have some questions.

Is massa sovada another name for the sweet bread pao doce?

Massa Sovada ou Folar de Páscoa

Are there other, regional versions of the Holy Spirit sopa? The local Portuguese community is mainly from the Azores. I’ve seen some recipes with chicken.

This seems to be THE recipe and picture of this soup on the web

This is an English version of a recipe similar to the sopa I had today

And this link has a number of variations of sopa.

Which leads to my final question … what other food is served at festas? The above link has some recipes for other Holy Spirit festival foods.

Getting back to the sopa. This excellent article from the San Francisco Chronicle about California festas says of the festa and sopa …

“it all started in the 13th century with the softhearted Isabel of Aragon, consort of King Diniz of Portugal, who began the custom of crowning one of the common people -- originally a man -- on the feast of the Pentecost, and putting on a huge spread for the poor”

I always wondered about sopa because day-old bread is used. Where the poor being fed leftovers?

Then I found a site that traces the origins of Portuguese food from well … Genesis? In the beginning there were the Romans and Arabs … and they said let the Portuguese eat … lots of stuff.

The origins of sopas began with the Romans who brought wheat to the region … “Together with meat, it constituted the basic nourishment for the upper classes during the Middle Ages. A slab of meat would be served on top of a round flat loaf. Leftover bread, soaked with meat juice, was given to the servants and the dogs.

Meat and bread are thus in the origin of the Holy Ghost celebrations … it must have been what Queen Elizabeth (Rainha Santa Isabel) served to the beggars, afterwards crowned as emperors, as a sign of humility on the part of royalty”

Yep … that’s sopas … bread soaked in soup.

Anyway … great little background on Portuguese food.

During the Renaissance, the rich would serve whole roast ox garnished with a circle of whole chickens. That must have been something to see.

The Portuguese dish with pork and clams originated because pigs were fed fish and the pork had a fishy taste. The clams were added to the dish to disguise the fishiness of the meat. People thought the clams were flavoring the dish.

Alheiras were originally a sausage made to look like pork sausages. When the Portuguese Jews were forced to convert to Christianity they secretly continued to practice Judaism. The Cryto-Jews came up with the sausage recipe so that it appeared they converted and were eating pork.

Lots of interesting stuff in the link like the funeral of the cod and turkeys being given a shot of booze before being dispatched.

Unrelated but there seems some serendipity to this. In my Portuguese googling I just learned that the Persian word for orange is porteghâl, the fruit being named for the country which exported oranges.

My first encounter with Portuguese food indirectly led to my rworange name … and a year-long crawl of local Portuguese food … and this year has been my year of exploring Persian food. Coincidence or cosmos?

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  1. Very interesting. In Monterey CA there used to be a restaurant owned by a family with Azorean roots. That sopa was one of their signature dishes, served in a special silver bowl. It reminded me a lot of chunks of my grandmother's pot roast in thin gravy - only served with wonderful pieces of Monterey Bay bread. My memory is that their version also had cabbage in it, but memory is a tricky thing.

    Anyway, thanks for the informative post.


    1 Reply
    1. re: Ed Dibble

      I know that restaurant I was born and raised in Monterey, CA used to go the Portuguese festival every year and (Sopa) Soupish is wonderful down there. My grandmother is full blooded portuguese my great grandmother was from Pico in the Azores.

    2. The explanation for the porco alentejana (pork with clams... God, it's delicious) that was given me by a Portuguese friend (the fact that he was Portuguese does not mean that it was correct, of course) was that it was a way of proving that you weren't Jewish. After all, the only way it could be less kosher would be to serve it with a cream sauce!

      1 Reply