Alcomonias cakes

Ark of taste
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Alcomonias are a Portuguese sweet made from sifted wheat flour or bran, honey or brown sugar, toasted pine nuts, occasionally cinnamon, and water. They are prepared by toasting the flour, then cooking all the ingredients together until a thick dough forms. The dough is then then rolled out and cut for formed into small diamond shapes. The prepared sweets then are left to air dry until ready for consumption. They are linked to the coastal Alentejo region of south-central Portugal.  

This sweet appears to trace its origins back to the period of Arab occupation in the region, either because of its diamond shape, or because of the ingredients used and, in particular, because of its name alcomonia – a word of Arabic origin, meaning ‘cumin-colored’ (in this case, this color comes from the toasted flour and honey). However, the alcomonias of today no longer have any connection with the cumin from which they their name is derived, as it is no longer used as an ingredient, undoubtedly because this product became hard to come by after the Moors had left. As cumin became scarce, it was replaced by cinnamon (but now, even this ingredient is sometimes left out). Similarly, honey (the main sweetener for centuries) gave way to widely available sugar. Pine nuts were used from the mid-nineteenth century (when the afforestation plans for coastal areas were gradually making progress). The rectangular shape became a diamond shape, and while wheat has remained, the use of bran evolved as a home economics strategy to make the most of the ground cereal.  

Alcomonias are typically associated with traditional festivals, namely the fairs of Melides and Santo André (November 30 and December 1), where the sweets are sold. Alcomonias have always been one of the major attractions of this fair, given that they are sold almost exclusively at this event; people often go to the Santo André fair just to buy alcomonias. The women who sold these sweets used sit together on low chairs, displaying in front of them alcomonias by the dozen, wrapped in white paper, in open baskets lined with immaculately white towels; close by they would have a plate of alcomonias on display so that customers could see and taste.  

It is difficult to say how much of this sweet is produced as production is carried out my a small number of artisans and family fonfectioners, who make the sweets mainly for their own consumption, for friends and for special events and fairs. There are only a couple of shops that sell the sweets year-round. Alcomonias can be considered a “poor” sweet, as they do not contain eggs and are only moderately sweet and made from limited ingredients. As such, they are devalued and being replaced by more complicated, sweeter, and commercially made snacks and pastries. As a result, these traditional, unpretentious sweets risk being lost, and along with them the know-how related to their production and a symbol of Portuguese culture. 

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Production area:Areas of Melides (Grândola) and Santa Cruz-Santo André (Santiago do Cacém), in the Alentejo Litoral region

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Cakes, pastries and sweets

Nominated by:Victor Lamberto