Not only does our nearest city, Abrantes, offer a good range of restaurants, shops, and cultural activities, it is home to something else quite special: Palha de Abrantes, the famous 'Straw of Abrantes'.
This sweet local delicacy - which recently featured in the '7 Maravilhas Doces de Portugal' series on Portuguese television - has proved to be quite a hit with our guests who have discovered it, and we thought it was worth digging a little deeper into its history.
As with many regional cakes in Portugal, it belongs to the family of 'Doces Conventuais', cakes and sweets made primarily with egg yolks, an abundance of which came about in convents and monasteries through the practice of using egg whites to stiffen the ceremonial robes and hats.
Where the story becomes specific to Abrantes, is with the reference to straw. Like many urban centres before the coming of motor vehicles, Lisbon relied heavily on animals for the transport of people and goods, and these needed to be fed. This was done mostly with straw, the bulk of which was grown in the Alentejo, and the position of Abrantes - bordering the Alentejo on the river - was the most suitable port from which this straw, along with grain, cork and olive oil, could be transported downstream to the capital.
Thus the connection with the city of Abrantes and straw. The rural port from which these goods originated must have seemed the end of the world to the cosmopolitan Lisbonites of the time, generating the saying – ‘Go eat straw in Abrantes!’ (i.e. get as far away from me as you possibly can!). This view must have softened when the capital discovered the sweet version of this 'straw', because the phrase ‘It’s worth being a donkey to eat the straw from Abrantes’ also became common.
So - what is this famous palha? And how is it made? As with many of life's good things, it apparently came about by accident; a young monk at the Convento do Graça in Abrantes was whisking egg yolks and used his whisk to remove some sparks that had fallen into a nearby pot of hot sugar syrup. Threads of egg yolk began to form, and the straw of Abrantes was born. And yes, these threads of sugared egg yolk really do look like straw!
The best place to try these pretty little straw bales is outside the café which shares the cake’s name, Palha de Abrantes, in the square Praça Barão de Batalha in the old town of Abrantes. You can soak up the sun and the sugar in this pretty spot, and we are sure you will agree it is worth the trip, even if you are not a donkey!