The King Cake Portuguese Christma's tradition and curiosities





The Portuguese Rooster sits at his table, meticulously crafting a Christmas card. The azure-tiled walls add a touch of charm to the room. To top it off, there's a King Cake gracing the table! While some may consider sending Christmas cards an outdated tradition, the Portuguese Rooster firmly believes that there's nothing quite like seeing a loved one's handwritten note. Follow the Portuguese Rooster's lead!

The King Cake holds symbolic significance, representing the gifts bestowed upon Baby Jesus by the three Wise Men. The rich golden hue of the crust symbolizes gold, while the candied and dried fruits evoke the gift of myrrh. The cake's delightful aroma hints at the gift of incense.

An intriguing legend revolves around the King Cake and the fava bean. It goes like this:

Upon sighting the Star of Bethlehem, heralding the birth of Jesus, the Three Wise Men engaged in a dispute over who would have the honor of presenting their gifts. A clever baker intervened by baking a cake and concealing a fava bean within the dough. Each of the Wise Men would partake of a slice, and the one who discovered the bean would be granted the privilege of delivering the gifts to Jesus first. The identity of the lucky winner remains a mystery. I grew up with this tradition: the person who found the fava bean was responsible for purchasing the Bolo Rei the following year.

Historical records suggest that the Romans utilized fava beans during Saturnalia banquets to designate the King of the Feast. This practice likely evolved from a children's game that was prevalent during the festivities, allowing youngsters to choose a king through a bean-based drawing. Over time, this game was adopted by adults, who utilized the beans for voting during assemblies.

The Catholic Church decided to link Saturnalia to the Nativity and later to the Epiphany, observed between December 25th and January 6th. This date became known as Three Wise Men or King's Day. In Spain, Bolo Rei is traditionally consumed on this occasion, and children receive gifts.

There was also a small metal token hidden inside the cake. This tradition was rooted in pagan rituals and related to the myth of Charon, the ferryman of Hades who transported departed souls and required payment. Discovering the metal token in the King Cake was considered a sign of good luck. Initially, traditional Bolo Rei offerings included a pound of gold, but later ceramic or tin trinkets were used in more austere times.

In 1999, a decree was issued to prohibit objects from being added to the cake due to recorded accidents in which individuals accidentally swallowed these items. However, in 2001, they were once again allowed, provided they were properly enclosed.

In France during the reign of Louis XIV, Gâteau des Rois (King's Cake) was a New Year's and King's Day delicacy. With the advent of the French Revolution in 1789, Bolo Rei was renamed Gâteau des sans-culottes. The "sans-culottes" were individuals who wore long, coarse cotton trousers and were typically part of the bourgeoisie. They frequently led street demonstrations.

The French recipe made its way to Portugal in the latter half of the 19th century, introduced by Baltazar Rodrigues Castanheiro Júnior, heir to the founder of Lisbon's Confeitaria Nacional. This establishment became the first in Portugal to bake and sell King Cake. The celebrated confectioner behind this venture was Gregório.

On February 1, 1908, King D. Carlos and his son, D. Luís Filipe, the heir to the throne, were assassinated. Surprisingly, D. Manuel ascended to the throne, becoming Portugal's final monarch. In 1911, one year after the establishment of the Republic, there was a proposal to change the name of Bolo Rei in the Assembly of the Republic. While the idea was rejected, the cake was referred to by other names such as Christmas Cake, New Year's Cake, or Bolo Arriaga, named after the first elected President of the Portuguese Republic. Even conservative Republicans continued to savor it, but they preferred calling it Christmas Cake or New Year's Cake.


There's also a Bolo Rainha (Queen Cake), and its recipe, derived from France, has only become a Christmas tradition in recent years. This cake is favored by those who aren't fond of candied fruit, as it features dried fruit exclusively.




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