Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Braga!

Our Christmas in Braga was much like everything else about Braga - some things expected, some unexpected, others just a bit odd - but all of them lots of fun!

The most unexpected and slightly odd part of our Christmas was our first event on Christmas Eve - Bananeiro 2010! Every Christmas Eve a small wine shop named Casa das Bananas on the main pedestrian street serves Moscatel wine and bananas beginning around 5:30pm and wrapping up by 7:30 or 8:00pm. Although we heard multiple stories about the origins of this event, our best guess is that it started somewhere between 15 and 30 years ago when the wine shop owner invited neighboring shop owners over for a beverage after everyone had closed up their shops that evening. Over the years some customers started tagging along and it grew into a nice sized gathering that spilled out of the shop onto the street. Many people would stop by and buy a bottle of chilled Moscatel to share with friends and to wish them a Merry Christmas before heading off to a traditional Christmas Eve dinner with family.

The event exploded between 10 and 15 years ago when a TV reporter from Lisbon, who was born and raised in Braga, did a story on the event that included a live TV broadcast. Now, there are thousands who show up. The streets are crammed full of people for over 100 yards in all directions.

Because of the large crowd, there are now a few booths outside to sell the wine and bananas - but just getting to one of these near the shop proved to be quite a challenge. But with some determination we made it and I could order - in my broken Portuguese - a bottle with two glasses and two bananas.

With wine and bananas in hand we made it back to the corner where we were to meet João and his friends. Here we heard the many stories of the origins of Bananeiro; they seemed to grow more varied and contradictory as the wine flowed.

Moscatel is a sweet wine, best served cold, and a traditional Portuguese favorite. (And if you're wondering, most of the bottle came home with us and has proven to be a tasty pre-dinner treat. I think I'll help myself to a short one now.)

After this rather untraditional Christmas Eve kick-off we were very happy to go with João to his parents' farm to be part of their family's Christmas Eve dinner. This reminded me of Christmas out on my grandfather's farm in many ways. There were lots of kids, lots of food, and lots of gifts.

The traditional Portuguese meal for Christmas Eve is boiled bacalhau (cod fish), boiled vegetables, boiled eggs and boiled potatoes.

João assured us that probably 90% of Portuguese families have this on Christmas Eve. He also assured us that far fewer than 90% of Portuguese people really like it that much... But the Saraivas pass around olive oil, vinegar, and fresh garlic to top it all and it was really quite tasty.  On Christmas day, the leftover fish, eggs and vegetables will be made into a dish called roupa velha which means "old clothes."  Many people actually prefer this concoction to the original meal.

Another Portuguese specialty is dessert. If it has lots of sugar and eggs in it, the Portuguese probably invented it.

One of our favorites is rabanadas - you can see it above both above and to the right of the pear in the basket. It is like French toast that's drowned in a port wine sauce reduction and sometimes includes raisins. Peggy's Russian tea cakes are there on the green plate. They are just above the aletria - this is in the deep white bowl on the right. Aletria is made with angel hair pasta in a creamy cinnamon custard. It is sweet even with the pasta and it helped resolve Peggy's confusion of always seeing cinnamon prominently displayed in the pasta aisle of the grocery store.

We had a great time with the Saraiva clan that night and were very happy that they invited us out to the farm to share Christmas Eve with them.

After a lively Christmas Eve we were happy to enjoy a quiet Christmas day. We slept in and then went to the 11:30am Mass at the Cathedral de Se - the main Cathedral in Braga that was built in the 13th century. The music was nice and the sermon was probably good since the Bishop was there to deliver it - but since it was in Portuguese most of it was lost on us. I thought I as was at least able to pick out some of the words as he spoke and I felt pretty good about that until I thought for sure that he said "polvo." But "polvo" means octopus so I may not have understood as much as I thought...

After this we came home and enjoyed a day of food and mulled wine. Peggy made a nice mid-afternoon snack of polenta cakes topped with quince with blue cheese that were warmed under the broiler and then topped with a port wine reduction drizzle.

Dinner was a fantastic pork loin with a mustard and brown sugar glaze and basted with apple juice. This was topped with fruit that was poached in red wine. Sides included parsley potatoes and little brussels sprouts with bacon, sage and chestnuts. As usual, Peggy had put together a delicious meal. After dinner we opened a few gifts and watched that Christmas classic "Christmas in Connecticut."

To wrap up our Christmas weekend we went to see the Presépio the next day. This is a living nativity put on outside of Braga. Amazingly it includes people enacting 600 different roles. So it is much more than a single manger scene. It is more like "Living History Farms: The Biblical Years". There was a camp of Roman soldiers, several shops and scenes of people performing various crafts of the times, a meeting of the Roman Senate, and of course the nativity with a real baby, cow, and donkey.

It was a little cool out there - as you can see Peggy absconded with my scarf to keep her head warm. But it was lots of fun. A bit quirky at times but overall it was really very well done. Although we never did figure out how the Noah's Ark, with a live Noah waving us on board, figured into the whole affair.

Christmas isn't quite the same without one's family and friends and we did miss everyone back in Minnesota, Iowa, and New Mexico. We had a great time here in Braga but we also look forward to seeing everyone back home next holiday season.


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