Portugal – An Overview
In 1498, Portugal’s famed navigator Vasco Da Gama set up a sea route to India; and within half a century, with trading routes halfway round the world, Lisbon became one of the richest cities of Europe, controlling ports from Brazil to Macau, and importing citizens from afar who have contributed to the tolerant nature of the Portuguese. Such local architectural gems as the Dos Jeronimos Monastery commemorate the great navigators who set sail from the Belem neighbourhood of the capital. The atmospheric city of Porto, famous for port wine, and the standard bearer of that old world magic and glorious decadence that Portuguese cities are famed for, is second to Lisbon in size only. Porto sits at the mouth of the River Douro (translated as “river of gold”), and is home to charming stone-built villages spread over the luscious landscape.
The Portuguese countryside consists of deep valleys and terraced vineyards, as well as cork plantations and medieval castles. As in Spain, Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Moors have left their mark. Coimbra, above the River Mondego, is another of the nation’s “historic capitals” with its claim to the oldest university in Europe. In addition to Porto, Tomar and Sintra are Unesco World Heritage Sites, as is Evora, with its mysterious megaliths. The medieval walled city of Trancoso preserves ample evidence of its Jewish presence, as does picturesque Belmonte, half hidden in the bucolic countryside.
Portugal – From A Jewish Perspective
At the height of Jewish culture in Portugal there were more than 150 thriving Jewish communities throughout the nation.
There were originally three Sephardi communities: the first, Beth Jacob, already existed in 1610, and perhaps as early as 1602. Neve Shalom was founded between 1608 and 1612 by Jews of Spanish origin. The third community, Beth Israel, was established in 1618. These three communities began co-operating more closely in 1622. Eventually, in 1639, they merged to form Talmud Torah, the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam.
Portuguese Jews played a significant part in the cultural and economic development of the Dutch Republic. Moreover, they enjoyed a freedom of religion unique in Jewish history. The community produced rabbis, scholars, philosophers, artists, bankers as well as founders and trustees of major international commercial companies.
When Nazi Germany invaded Holland in 1940 there were around 140.000 Jews living here, a majority of them living in Amsterdam; of these about 4.300 were Sephardi Jews. The synagogue was left undamaged. Why is still a mystery – it was certainly an exception in occupied Holland.
After the war there were only some 20,000 Jews left in Holland, about 800 of whom were Sephardi. At present there are between 20.000 and 25.000 Jews in Holland, around 15.000 to 20.000 of whom in Amsterdam. The Portuguese Jewish community had in 2011 about 600 contributing members who live, like most of the Ashkenazi community, outside the Amsterdam city centre.
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The National dish is “Bacalao” dried salted cod, The Portuguese have been obsessed with it since the early 16th century, when the fishing boats would reach Newfoundland, the sailors salted and sundried their catch to make it last the long journey back home, there said to be 365 different ways of preparing Bacalao, a little like the French that have 365 different kind of cheeses one for each day of the year.
Another national dish is “cozido a Portuguesa” a thick stew of vegetables with Meat cooked and served in a variety of ways..
Roast baby lamb is very popular also another very popular dish is Tripe with haricot beans but not to everyone’s taste. The cuisine of the Sephardic Jews living in Portugal is an assortment of cooking traditions that developed among the Jews of Spain and Portugal with a little Moroccan influence and those of this Iberian origin who were dispersed in the Sephardic Diaspora.
As with other Jewish Ethnics division composing the Jewish Diaspora, Sephardim cooked foods that were popular in their countries of residence adapting them to the Jewish religion dietary requirements. Their choice of foods was also determined by economic factors with many of these dishes based on inexpensive products and readily available ingredients.
The Jewish women of Portugal were know for their amazing desserts, including the incredible “Pastelles de Nata” little cups made of puff pastry and filled with an amazing custard and baked in the oven.