A visit to a pastelaria in Lisbon in the lead up to Easter brings with it new surprises. Alongside the usual pastries and cakes, you’ll spot folares, loaves of sweet bread, some topped with hardboiled eggs, and many surrounded by a colorful assortment of almonds.
This type of bread, which contains ingredients forbidden during Lent, has long been associated with Easter and the feasting that occurs on this holiday. “After the winter months and the long fast during Lent, the Easter brings an intense activity in terms of culinary preparations and the exchange of cakes, namely the folares,” writes Mouette Barboff in her book A Tradição do Pão em Portugal (Bread in Portugal). Folares were traditionally a gift given by godfathers to their godchildren, and people would bake them at home in the days before Easter. Today they’re mainly bought from shops as less people bake at home, even in the villages.
What makes this bread unique (and why we’re constantly trying it wherever we go) is that it varies by region. In some places, it takes on more of a cake-like form, like in central and southern Portugal, where folares are sweet and spicy with cinnamon and aniseed and made in different shapes. Further north, we find savory versions, baked with meat and sausages.
Our favorite might be the one from Olhão, in the eastern Algarve, particularly those made by the small bakery João Mendes & Rita. Known as folar de folhas (folar with layers) or folar de Olhão, it’s built up with thin discs of dough, in between which are layers of butter and sugar. Due to its growing popularity, this specialty can now be found year round. But around Easter, when it’s traditionally eaten, bakeries producing folares begin working non-stop to fill all the orders – the team at João Mendes & Rita are baking around 1,600 every day.
João Mendes & Rita has been making the award-winning sweet bread for 40 years using the recipe of João Mendes’ grandmother Adelina. Some 70 years ago, she used to bake the folares herself in a wood-fired oven, but only around Easter. Adelina then passed on the secret recipe to her daughter Eugénia, João’s mother. When João and his partner, Anabela Rita, took the helm of the bakery in 1991, they modernized the space and improved the folar recipe (the original version had less sugar, according to Anabela). Their version of folar de Olhão became a hit outside the Algarve, so they decided to bake it year-round.
João Mendes & Rita has been making the sweet bread for 40 years using a secret family recipe.
The first time we met Anabela, she was swiftly pouring portions of butter and sugar in between layers of dough as the intoxicating smell of cinnamon wafted from the hot ovens. She explained that she has been making this family recipe for 30 years, as was evidenced by the fact that the other staff had trouble keeping up with her fast pace.
We were mesmerized watching the bakers – all women – in action, performing a well-rehearsed choreography of putting a small ball of dough through a machine (used also for pizzas) that spits them out as discs. Then they carefully assemble a tower of discs inside a greased tin, adding a pat of butter and a dash of sugar with cinnamon in between each layer, before putting them in the oven. During the baking process, the butter and sugar melt, with some of the sweet liquid being absorbed by the bread and some bubbling up to create a crunchy caramelized coating on the outside.
The dough is made of flour, eggs, butter, cinnamon, lemon, water and yeast. Once baked, it’s one of the sweetest and tastiest Easter cakes we have ever eaten (unlike folares in other regions of the country, this one is not afraid of sugar). But it’s best consumed fresh, hence the great bake off before Easter in this Algarve town that’s known more for its amazing fish.
When we spoke to her this week, Anabela described how busy she’s been – they have been baking folares non-stop, and will continue to do so to meet all their Easter orders. Besides the traditional folares, they now have some variations with apple, chocolate or pumpkin that sound enticing. But all the other cakes and pastries they produce have been put on hold until after Easter. At the moment there are hundreds of baking tins filled with folares going in and out of the oven, and a lot of extra hands are needed to fill all those tins.
There is one member of the staff, though, who doesn’t have her hands in the dough – her sole task is to wrap and label these caramelized beauties before they’re shipped off to the rest of the country. In Lisbon, they can be found in the supermarkets Pingo Doce and Continente, and they’re worth searching out.
In a country with such a sweet tooth it’s a surprise that these folares are not as widespread as other cakes. But as one of the bakers said on our last visit, as she skillfully filled another tin with layers, “Perhaps it’s for the best. If they were everywhere, they wouldn’t be so special, right?” After having tasted one warm out of the oven, we couldn’t agree more.