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Bolo Rei: the legend of the Kings' cake in Portugal

Bolo Rei: the legend of the Kings' cake in Portugal

It is one of the 13 most traditional Christmas desserts in Portugal: the Bolo Rei. However, this "King's cake", equivalent to the French Christmas cake, has its origin... in France! With its candied fruits and crown shape, its history goes back more than 2,000 years and its journey from France to Portugal is particularly interesting.

We tell you the legend of the Portuguese Bolo Rei.

The Three Wise Men at the origin of the legend of the Bolo Rei

In France, we celebrate the Three Kings with the traditional "Galette des Rois". This gourmet dessert is usually eaten at the time of the Epiphany, in January.
This festival of Christian origin marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men in front of the Christ Child. Kings Gaspar, Belchior and Balthazar would have brought each a gift to the child: gold, myrrh and incense.


If we know the "galette des Rois" in France as a flaky pastry cake filled with frangipane or applesauce, it also exists, especially in Occitania and Provence in the form of a brioche crown decorated with candied fruits and dried fruits. It is the Kings' cake.

This version of the Epiphany dessert would be a representation of the gifts of the Kings presented to Jesus. Thus, the dough would represent gold, the candied fruits, myrrh and the orange blossom found in the dough would be a reminder of incense.

And what about the bean? According to legend, when the Three Wise Men saw the star announcing the birth of Jesus, they argued over which of the three would have the honor of being the first to give his gift to the child. To draw lots fairly, they would have asked a baker to bake a cake and hide a dry bean inside so that the one who found it would be the first. Even today, the tradition is that the one who finds the bean is the one who offers the cake the following year.

If the Christian legend is the most common explanation of the Kings' cake in Christian countries, historical traces of this cake have been found dating back to Roman times.

Your Portuguese Bolo Rei can be presented at the table in a beautiful dish inspired by the Portuguese azulejos



or in a simple, authentic Portuguese white dish. 


The Kings' Cake: a Roman origin

It would seem that Christians did not quite invent the Kings' cake, since traces of a very similar cake can be found in Roman culture.

In December, a week before the winter solstice, the Romans used to celebrate the god Saturn during the Saturnalia. This marked the end of the lengthening of the nights and the period of famine.

On the occasion of these great popular celebrations, social barriers disappeared and meals were shared between masters and slaves while exchanging gifts.


A round cake was made to decorate the banquets, filled with figs, dates and honey. It was divided into equal parts between the masters and the slaves. Inside the cake a bean was inserted and the one who was lucky enough to find it in the share he received was named "king" for a day.

To counter this pagan festival, the Christians decided to appropriate the Kings' cake and integrate it into their celebrations.

The Kings' Cake in Portugal is traditionally eaten as a dessert. It goes perfectly with a Portuguese tea or coffee.



How do you go from the French King's cake to the Portuguese Bolo Rei?

The Portuguese "Bolo Rei" comes from the French recipe of the Kings' cake. It would have appeared in Portugal, precisely in Lisbon in 1870. The recipe was brought from France by Balthazar Rodrigues Castanheiro Júnior.

After working in a French pastry shop where he discovered the Kings' cake, he returned to Portugal and decided to adapt the recipe in his family pastry shop in Lisbon, very famous, opened by his father in 1829.

It is the "Confeitaria Nacional" which still exists today, in the Rossio square. The recipe is a bit adapted, but it is very successful and the concept is sold all over the country.


In recent years, the "Bolo Rainha" (Queen's Cake) has appeared, a version without candied fruit, but with dried fruit.

In France, as in Portugal, when the monarchy was abolished, the existence of the Kings' cake was put in danger. In France, it took the name of "gâteau des Sans-culottes" for a while. In Portugal, it was called "national cake" or "Christmas cake".

Now that you know the history of the Bolo Rei, all you have to do is bake one for your family or friends. For this purpose, we have translated the original recipe as well as those of the 13 most famous Portuguese desserts.


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