Medronhos For Natal

We didn’t expect the medronhos, or madrones, to last so long. Those Christmas ornaments hanging from the trees all over the forest near Monserrate, and all over the Serra da Sintra, persisted into late November and early December this year. A couple of years ago, we found a few strays adorning the trees during the week of Natal, up in central Portugal, near a little village called Ameixoeira (close to Sertã).

Our foray last week up into the valley where we also see chantrelles netted a little fruit, just enough to leave for the birds, and have one or two out of hand, for their concentrated nutrition. With the cool summer in 2018, it seems they ripened unevenly, leaving just a few to make for a festive touch as we approach the holidays this year.

In past years, we’ve collected enough to make jam, a kilo or so, preserving their bright sunny citrusy taste into January. Medronhos come from the same family (ericáceas) that blueberries and cranberries do, packed with similar protecting vitamins and micronutrients (purported to help ward off urinary tract infections and other ills). We added lavender flowers to the last batch for a floral touch, and adjusted the water to match the high pectin content of the berries—the medronhos have so much natural pectin that they thicken right up into a stiff jam when made with a normal amount of water. Of course, you’ll need sugar on hand to temper the tartness of the fruit.

But seeing those flashing red berries on the trees has come to signal to us that the holidays aren’t too far away—and judging by the billboards and commercials scattered across the land, it seems that Portugal has jumped on the bandwagon as far as jumping the gun on holiday sales. The mountainous Christmas village and nativity display at CascaiShopping mall went up overnight, or so it felt, and by early December, festive luzes de Natal swung across every town’s main street.

We spent an evening up in the historic center of Sintra last week, and visited the tree in front of the National Palace. So quiet, that open square, in the cool December night, with only a scattering of people walking around. It’s a precious time to visit these places, in the soft light of evening into the night.

The winter winds and waves blow from new directions, bringing up treasures on the sand, too—little presents from the ocean in the form of jewel-like sea glass, so rare on our little beach. Collecting a handful, we’ll make gifts of the glass in some future project in 2019.

The Christmas markets, or mercados de Natal, are famous around Europe, and Portugal holds its own. We traveled up to Gradil, near Mafra, to enjoy the intimate market at Quinta de Sant’Ana, along with a wine tasting paired with cheeses, music, and local products to browse. We stopped at Quinta do Arneiro for a basket of organic vegetables and spices, including turmeric root, which can be difficult to find. Everywhere we’ve gone this month, the sparkling white lights and scenes of the season have made the time feel special.

We found arandos (cranberries) at the Jumbo in Cascais—a coup! And we have mince and Christmas pudding brought down from the UK (and Peppermint Bark Oreos from the US) so that we can keep our native holiday traditions without compromising. But as we watch the Sintra-Praia das Maçãs tram pass by, festooned with garlands and shiny tinsel, we feel embraced by the way Portugal celebrates the season. Pass the Eggless Eggnog with Aguardente, and the bolo rei!

Eggless Eggnog with Aguardente

Milk, either 2%, meio gordo, or whole

Cream, whipping cream or para batar

Condensed milk

Nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla extract

Aguardente, brandy, cognac, or rum

  1. Use a 3:1 ratio of milk to cream, plus 2 tablespoons of condensed milk per cup of cream. Three cups milk to one cup cream makes for 4 healthy servings.
  2. Place into blender, along with 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg per cup of cream. Add 1/3 cup alcohol per cup of cream. Blend until frothy.
  3. Allow to mature in the fridge for at least an hour; overnight or up to a month if you wish.
  4. Serve chilled in glasses with a crank of freshly ground nutmeg on top.
  5. Can also be used in direct replacement for milk in a latte.