Today I wanted to share with you the one icon of Portuguese Christmas – the Bolo Rei or, translated to English, the King Cake. I know that other countries have similar variations to this cake, but I wanted to share a little bit of the history of this cake, how it came to be named as the King of cakes, and why it’s traditional of Christmas.
The name of the cake is a reference to the biblical Three Wise Men (in Portuguese we say the three magic kings) – Balthasar, Belchior and Gaspar – who visited the newborn baby Jesus bearing gifts, guided by the “Guiding Star” that often we now put on top of our Christmas Trees.
The cake is basically sweet bread, with a consistency similar to brioche, shaped like a crown, and it’s very rich with nuts and crystalised fruits. Inside there are usually two small gifts – a dry bean and typically a figure of the nativity scene. Whoever gets the dry bean in its slice, is said to have to pay for the cake, or for everyone’s drinks.
In fact, the cake origin goes back to the Roman Empire, when Saturn was celebrated with huge feasts (in the month of December), where a king of the party was elected. In this case, a dried bean (considered at the time a symbol of fertility) was put into a tart, and whoever found it became the king of the party. This was, of course, a pagan celebration. Yet, the Catholic Church took advantage of it – since it happened in December, it converted this ritual and gave it a different meaning, by linking it to the Nativity and the Epiphany – the 25th of December and the 6th of January, the latter celebrated in Portugal as the Day of the Magic Kings.
The cake the way it’s known today, actually came up during the reign of Louis XIV in France. It was during this time that the additional gift was included – a porcelain figure of the nativity scene.
The cake became popular in Portugal in the 19th century, firstly sold in Portugal in the Confeitaria Nacional around 1869, precisely by a french baker, and it quickly became famous. When the monarchy was abolished in Portugal on the 5th of October of 1910, cake production was threatened, since it contained the word “king” in its name. Still, bakers of the time insisted that business was business, and politics were politics. Some started calling it, the “Christmas Cake” or the “New Year’s Cake”. Some of the republicans even came up with names such as the President Cake or Republican Cake – clearly forgetting that this really had nothing to do with politics. These new names never stuck, and therefore to this day, we call it Bolo Rei, King Cake.
To this day, this is cake is indeed king in any Portuguese Christmas table and even though I don’t particularly like it (I am not a fan of crystalised fruit), I really enjoy having one at the table, with its very rich Christmas colours. As I mentioned above the cake has inside it a dry bean and a porcelain figure… so you do need to be careful with your teeth! In fact, in 1999, the insertion of the figure in the cake was prohibited, however, an exception was later made in the name of tradition. And, I’m glad it did 🙂
Still, I do prefer the French Galette des Rois or the other variation you can find in Portugal that we call Queen’s Cake, since it doesn’t contain the crystalised fruit.
Do you also have a King Cake in your country or any similar variations? Would love to hear