Portugal and Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah cookies

I had an unexpected detour in my travels last year and ended up in Portugal, a place I hadn’t planned to visit and certainly not during Jewish holidays. Portugal had initially been a refuge for Jews fleeing Spain during the Inquisition but it subsequently followed in Spain’s footsteps, expelling or forcing the conversion of its Jewish populations. It was surreal at times to return to the country which now has a Jewish population of 1500 people now, spread amongst a few cities and towns. I spent time in the stunning Algarve region on the southern coast, including the town of Faro, where previously there had been a Jewish population, though the cemetery and museum were closed when I tried to visit. On the other hand, there’s a small but vibrant community in Lisbon, where I spent Simchat Torah. It is a spectacular, dramatic mountainous coastal city filled with the most beautiful buildings whose exteriors are covered in the most colorful tiles. It is quickly becoming an international cultural and technology destination and I predict it to become “the next Berlin.”

One of the many beautiful buildings in Lisbon

Interestingly, I had dinner erev Simchat Torah with a Haredi couple that had been transplanted from Germany to Portugal. Their vast apartment was filled with many neat rows of books, antique furniture, and several beautiful cats. The meal  was a traditional German one with potatoes and meat (and vegetarian sausage for me) and a huge metal stein of beer for the husband, without a hint of local Portuguese cuisine. And during my time exploring the city, I visited an astounding number of vegan cafes, so I didn’t get a sense of traditional Portuguese food or the cuisine of the Jewish community.

I went the following evening to the city’s  synagogue for Simchat Torah celebrations and was greeted by a security guard that seemed to have taken his training with El Al. I had been warned about their unusual check-ins of foreigners but it was still bizarre (after having confirmed my attendance in advance with the synagogue) to present my passport and be asked the purpose of my visit, if I had any packages with me that someone else had given me, or if I was carrying any weapons. No, I explained that I was just trying to go into the synagogue for Simchat Torah.

A steep tram line in hilly Lisbon.

It was a larger gathering than I had expected and I was especially impressed by the number of kids. It appeared that there were many members of the community who were foreigners living in Lisbon. It was a beautiful large synagogue with a massive vaulted ceiling and huge beautiful ark. Though the synagogue has an upstairs women’s area, we were all congregated downstairs and separated on either side of the room.  The women at one point took a Torah outside for dancing in the sukkah, under the watchful eye of the security guard.

No food was served while I was there. So, while writing this post, I searched for Iberian Simchat Torah recipes but, not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any. I did find a recipe adapted from a Portuguese cookbook, included in the excellent A Drizzle of Honey, which is filled with recipes from conversos (I will share lots more about this incredible cookbook in an upcoming post). Though it’s common to eat stuffed cabbage on Simchat Torah,  I thought this recipe would be appropriate since sweet foods are also enjoyed during the

Another beautiful tile building in Lisbon

holiday. And it is especially unique and appropriate since it was originally found in a Portuguese book. The cookies are called “Pedro Abella’s Sugar Cookies” and the cookbook cites documents from the Inquisition (food preparation and consumption were often used by authorities to identify Jews) which explain that, “In 1491 Pedro Abella of Barbastro, was accused of having ‘sugar cakes and nougat candy brought from the Jewish quarter; he would eat them only if Jewish women had prepared them.'”

As you’ve noticed, I don’t bake often and prefer not to eat sugar. But, these cookies are incredibly simple to prepare and delicious.  I’ve also never used wine in a cookie recipe before, which was an interesting twist. They’re soft and chewy with lightly crisped edges.

If you’re interested in learning more about historic Jewish sites or communities today in Portugal, click here here and here.

Dough, ready for baking.

Pedro Abella’s Sugar Wafer Cookies

Ingredients
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegan butter
1 tbsp white wine or sherry
1 tbsp hot water
2 tsp orange extract
7/8 cup flour, sifted

Preparation

  1. Preheat the over to 375 Fahrenheit.
  2. Cream the sugar and butter until smooth.
  3. Mix in, one at a time, the wine, hot water, and orange extract.
  4. Add the sifted flour, 1/4 cup at a time. Mix until smooth.
  5. Drop batter by the teaspoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet, about two inches apart.
  6. Bake for 7-9 minutes, or until the edges are brown. Remove from the oven and let cool.

Chag Sameach!

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2 thoughts on “Portugal and Simchat Torah

  1. Thank you for writing about Jewish history, food and life of Portuguese Jews. It is an area of Judaism that I think people know little about.
    The cookie recipe is simple and delicious!

    Liked by 1 person

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