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Have you ever heard of the bolo-rei (king-cake)? A classic Christmas sweet that cannot be missing on the Portuguese tables this time of the year! According to legend, it symbolizes the gifts of the Three Magi to the baby Jesus: the crust (the gold), the candied and dried fruits (the myrrh), and the aroma (the incense). And this year the best bolo rei in the country is made at Padaria da Né, in Amadora, a municipality neighboring Lisbon.

Padaria da Né is a little house on the corner of a street going up and down – Rua Carvalho Araújo – in Damaia, Amadora, which goes unnoticed to a more inattentive eye. But the smells coming from the oven call the attention of even the most distracted. Inside, it is the magic that happens backstage in the kitchen. 

The smell of hot simmers as trays are pushed in and out of the ovens in a shuttle. Hands knead, fill, and sprinkle. And it is Hélio Esteves, son of ‘Né’, short for Noémia Rainho, who gives the bakery its name, who coordinates this dance. 

After all, it was he who devised the recipe that earned the bakery this year the title of best bolo rei in Portugal in the contest promoted by the Associação do Comércio e da Indústria de Panificação (ACIP), a bakerey association. The secret? “It’s this spectacular spirit that is lived here,” he says.

This cake will only have appeared as we know it in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIV. All were to later be forbidden during the French Revolution, and even during the proclamation of the Republic in Portugal. But of course, all good recipes resist. 

The businesswoman, the baker, and the pastry chef 

It all started when Noémia Rainho’s life took a turn: a divorce. She, who was an enterprising woman and had already owned a clothing store and a mini-market, began to take more notice of her neighbor Paulo Luís, who was the neighborhood baker, in Mafra (a municipality in the Lisbon distric), where so many make bread. 

“I didn’t even like him much before,” Né confesses with a laugh. “I thought he was a baker and had a car with dark windows and was very vain, but look, it happened, and we’ve been together for 15 years now.” 

The click happened. Paulo, who had grown up in his parent’s bakery, brought Noémia into the family business. Later on, they would open a bakery together: “He baked the bread and I distributed it,” he recalls. 

But in the meantime, a new desire arose: Hélio’s. 

When Hélio Esteves was a little boy he learned to make bread with his grandmother: “He always liked to create”, says his mother. In high school he went into sports, hoping it would be “easier”, but slowly he began to realize that that was not the way to go. 

“When it came time to choose a college, I wasn’t thinking about Engineering or anything like that, I always liked more practical things,” he says.

 Hélio Esteves decided he wanted to continue working in the bakery his mother ran with his stepfather. Photo: Inês Leote

One day, tired of thinking about the decisions he had to make, he came home and told his mother, “If it makes you happy, I’ll go to college, but what I wanted was to continue in the bakery.” His mother answered him as it was obvious to her: “What I want is for you to be happy”.

The king of delicacies

Helio didn’t just become a baker: he got his hands in the dough and discovered new recipes, new flavors, and new possibilities.

“We started by making the basics of croissants,” recalls Hélio. 

Then came the pastel de nata (custard tarts), which served them the award for the best pastel de nata in Lisbon last year. And what’s the secret here? “It’s the lemons from the “Oeste” (West) area!”, replies the pastry chef without mincing his words. “Since we are from there, we are very proud!”. 

Today, the king of this kitchen is a new bolo rei, that magic recipe that Helio invented.

The best bolo-rei (king cake) in Portugal is the result of the experiments of self-taught baker Hélio Esteves. Photo: Inês Leote

With vivacity, Hélio tells how this one, especially, is made: you start with a brioche bread dough that is flavored with alcoholic drinks and with an orange peel, “to give it that bolo-rei touch”, and then you sprinkle it with candied and dried fruits…

The fruits shine: it’s the green, the orange, the red. The pumpkin, the fig, the orange, the tangerine, the cherry, the walnut, and the almond. And the trick is right there: in the best fruits, at least that’s what Helio says. 

The trick has brought rivers of people to the doors of Padaria da Né. Although the same thing had already happened with the pastéis de nata, Noémia confesses: “We weren’t expecting it… It’s inexplicable what we feel!”

The future of Padaria da Né

Despite the emotion, Noémia remains realistic: “It’s not an easy life, but I always like to be on the go! After all, she is the one who takes the reins of the business: “I don’t touch the dough, but it’s all mine, I give the orders: to the pastry chef, to the baker…” 

The movement doesn’t stop: the bakery opens at six in the morning and only closes at seven in the afternoon, and not even at night do the bakers rest, with the bread taking shape through the early morning hours. 

With the prizes, the confusion has increased: if before the bolo-rei only came out on weekends, now there are days when up to 300 are made! And the bolo rei hasn’t taken the place of the “pastel de nata”: “Whenever someone takes a bolo rei”, they usually take a “pastel de nata”, says Né. 

The affluence has been such that this businesswoman is already thinking of expanding the bakery, which is tiny, but in the meantime has also reached Reboleira and Odivelas. “Next year, the goal is to reach Alfragide and Benfica, other Lisbon neighborhoods.

As for the family, they are not thinking of leaving Mafra, where they still live. “We continue to live in Mafra without hesitation, the Mafra air is different,” says Hélio. 

If Christmas is the celebration of the family, some celebrate it on the other side of the table: and in this bakery, it is the family that, with kindness and affection, gives life to the favorite delicacy of families at Christmas, and to that smell of fresh bread, to sweets fresh out of the oven, to Amadora.

You can read this article im Portuguese.

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