Sweet Christmas: Exploring holiday pastries of the...

Sweet Christmas: Exploring holiday pastries of the region

By: Ana Tavares

Photo: Hélio Ramos

Essential spoke to the region’s leading pastry chefs to see what we can expect at the Christmas table


André Basto and Patrick Mestre

First comes the scent then the surprise. This Christmas, guests entering the impressive lobby at Tivoli Marina Vilamoura will find a massive chocolate Christmas tree. At least three metres tall and with 100kg of chocolate, surrounded by balls, stars and gifts, this creation is anything but monochromatic and will take days to complete. “We are aiming for six metres, two floors. We will assemble it in a covered area and unveil it later,” says the five-star hotel’s executive chef, André Basto.

Excitement is evident, and that is not surprising: since joining Tivoli Marina, in 2014, and taking over the kitchen as executive chef two years later, this is the first Christmas Basto will spend with the hotel open. The same cannot be said for Patrick Mestre, who joined the team in 1997 and became pastry chef in early 2017. The chefs, 33 and 41 years old respectively, began planning for the festive season in July and had already drawn up some ideas in September.

According to Patrick, the concept is to explore what the Algarve has to offer. “We’re trying to create a classic setup, but interpret it in an Algarvean way.”

As another Christmas surprise for 2018, they will be adding a fourth type of chocolate — ruby — with which they have been experimenting since September. Introduced globally in 2017, ruby chocolate has an unusual red tinge and is produced using a mix of cocoa beans from Madagascar, Brazil and São Tomé and Príncipe. “It’s very aromatic, acidic and not too sweet,” explains the executive chef.

Exclusive in quantity and price (costing around 25% more than regular chocolate, according to the chefs), it has already impressed in some of the hotel’s desserts (such as a ruby chocolate and yogurt crème) and in the beautiful coconut and raspberry filled bonbons that will be offered to clients over Christmas. “They require a lot of work, with several layers of coating,” reveals Mestre. Two to three hours of work that melts in the mouth in seconds, with citrus notes and a prolonged finish.


António Miranda

António Miranda speaks with a sweetness typical of a 50-year-old who has been working in pastry for 35 years. After two decades at Pine Cliffs Resort Algarve, in Albufeira, he knows what he is talking about: since starting his craft at 15, he has been through every natural career progression. He has a close relationship with pastry and that is also the feeling he hopes to recreate for the resort’s guests during the Christmas season.

Leading a team of 12 pastry chefs, who work three shifts between 7am and 12am, Miranda starts thinking about Christmas halfway through the summer. Procedures for the festivities begin in mid-November of 2018, when the chef finishes his Christmas village, which has already become a tradition at the resort and is on display in the lobby. “I make a ginger village with lots of little houses, castles and even trees and bridges,” he explains. This comes alongside an array of traditional sweets — Portuguese and beyond — as well as lollypops, estrelas de figos (star-shaped, dried figs with almonds), dried fruits, ginger and cinnamon biscuits, and many other delicacies.

Keeping in mind some clients’ dietary restrictions and the growing trend for healthy eating, the pastry chef at Pine Cliffs strives to reduce the amount of sugar in his sweets (without compromising their identity), as well as adapting the classics, such as bolo-rei (a colourful, Portuguese Christmas cake with nuts and crystallised fruit). Besides the traditional version, Miranda makes a bolo-rainha (a play on bolo-rei) with gila (a type of squash) and no nuts — ideal for people with allergies — or crystallised fruit, as well as a chocolate bolo-rei.

At the table, guests could find conventional sweets and typical national desserts, such as lampreia de ovos (egg-sweet lamprey) or a Christmas log, along with international classics like a galette des rois, strüdel or Christmas pudding. “I also try to recreate [foreign guests’] traditions so they feel at home.”


Pedro Matos

Pedro Matos joined Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa, in Porches, this year after working for the Marriott group, Epic Sana Luanda and Vidigado Palace Hotel. Originally from Azambuja, the 34-year-old pastry chef has nothing but praise for the Algarve resort and, in particular, its people. “The way of living at Vila Vita is captivating and that’s what convinces a chef to work here — the relationships.”

Promising to bring his own personal style to Vila Vita, he began planning for Christmas at the five-star resort in mid-summer, but his vision did not come to fruition until December with the help of his team, comprising around 10 people working in shifts around the clock.

Christmas at Vila Vita in 2018 started in the hotel’s lobby, where Matos created a “sensorial and interactive piece” with chocolate and spices, among other ingredients. The resort’s dessert trolley and display window at Café Bica also reflected the festive period and Algarve flavours (carob, almond, orange), along with welcoming treats, which the chef refused to reveal with a glint in his eyes: “Last year it was a Christmas tree, but since some guests come every year, I won’t ruin the surprise.”

Photo: ©Vasco Célio/STILLS

Famous for its breakfast, Vila Vita embraced the holiday season in the most important meal of the day. “Breakfast is that time of day when guests spend more time in the hotel, so during that week we will have traditional cakes from other countries such as Austria, Italy, Germany and Spain,” assures Óscar Correia, the resort’s culinary executive director.

Always at the forefront of trends that lean towards a more sustainable, organic and healthy gastronomy, one of the resort’s major ventures is a gluten-free bolo-rei, but there were plenty of local specialities such as an Aljezur sweet-potato plait, rabanadas (a Portuguese take on French toast) and even rice pudding. These delicacies will also feature on the December 25 Sunday roast table, known to attract the local foreign community.

Photo: ©Vasco Célio/STILLS

Like the chefs at Tivoli Marina, Matos is also working with ruby chocolate, which he will fuse with regional flavours such as almonds and figs. “We are in the testing phase with fillings and ganaches. It’s one of a kind: I find accented citric notes, but it has some milk. It’s something we have to work on because it’s completely new,” says the chef.


Roberto Horta

His accent does not lie: Roberto Horta is from the Algarve. The 38-year-old chef worked in several pastry shops before training experience launched him into the hotel business. He has worked at the old Sheraton Algarve, Vila Sol (now Pestana) and Angola, before joining Conrad Algarve, in Quinta do Lago, in 2012, being promoted to pastry chef one year later.

Horta admits that Christmas at Conrad is not the traditional Portuguese celebration given the hotel’s mostly international clientele, but says he still manages to incorporate the classic Portuguese Christmas fritters or a lampreia de ovos with a stunning Christmas pudding with brandy butter sauce. “Our identity is always there,” states this aficionado of sweet-potato pasties. The hotel’s dessert menu strongly reflects this conciliation effort in three ways: the chef balances traditional flavours recreated in a modern way, with more classic desserts to please everyone, as well as more innovative creations which allow the eight-strong team to let their imagination run wild.

As with the other hotels, the preparations for Christmas in 2018 at Conrad began in the summer, but the mise en place does not happen until Christmas week. Horta speaks proudly and enthusiastically of the hotel’s Christmas brunch — already sold out for outside guests — which comprised a massive feast on December 25. “People really come with Christmas spirit. We have Styrofoam mimicking snow, several chocolate pieces alluding to Christmas and a mix of national and international flavours for every taste,” explains the pastry chef. “This year, I will replicate a Christmas tree I made on my first year here, with a colourful nativity scene underneath. Later we’ll break the chocolate and give it to children. It’s a delight.”


Bruno Oliveira

The first time Bruno Oliveira cooked rice his mother spanked him a little, but even that did not stop him from following a career in food, having worked in Lisbon (BBC and Sana), Epic Sana Luanda and Praia d’El Rey Beach & Golf Resort, in Óbidos. Years later, at 35, he is the executive chef at Dona Filipa Hotel (as of time of this magazine’s publication), in Vale de Lobo, and his food critics are far less aggressive. Working at the mythical Algarve hotel for six months, this chef ’s focus is on the product. “What we show people is the region’s identity. If I have a good orange, why not give them a good torta de laranja [moist orange roll]?” he wonders.

Christmas or not, Oliveira’s kitchen is a tribute to the Algarve, the orange, the carob, the medronho (firewater). As soon as he arrived in the region, the first task he set for himself was to find the best local suppliers. Now his mission is to “awaken the sleeping volcano” that is Dona Filipa, putting it back in the spotlight where this Algarve classic belongs.

For that reason, along with his team and the three members working solely in pastry (from 9am to 12am), he had been planning Christmas since August: there was bolo-rei (which he likes to pair with Port wine) and bolo-rainha, Olhão folar (layered, spiced bread), and creations made from the region’s top produce. One such delicacy is French toast with rice pudding crème and rum and raisin ice cream; or a spiced cake inspired by the three Wise Men with a foam of lemongrass tea.

The chef did not reveal the full menu as he prefers to see who his clients will be and if they have dietary restrictions. “We start working Christmas week and everything is made in-house. We can make everything in detail.”

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