The sleepy town of Amarante in northern Portugal is famous for its scenic riverside setting, its deeply religious inhabitants, and its enormous penis cakes.
Yes. This sedate town with its grand religious architecture and its farming folk also does a nice line in obscene pastry products.
Visit here during June's festivities in honour of the town's patron saint, São Gonçalo, and you can't move an inch without a pious-looking local brandishing a whopping great pastry phallus in your direction. And even when the festival fever has died down, the town's bakery windows are still a sight to behold, as Amarante has become so famous for its doces fálicos (literally "phallic sweets") that confectioners in the town now sell them all year round.
The tasty cock-and-ball-shaped bolos, which are coated in a glaze of white icing (presumably in case they weren't looking rude enough already), are sometimes filled with a sweet cream filling just to really drive the point home. And with the town now as famous for its eye-catching cakes as it is for its rural beauty, visitors to the town can tuck into a pastry penis with their cafe pingado (coffee with a drip of milk) any day of the year.
The cakes are especially big business in January, when religious festivities see the phallic treats offered to friends and family as a way of ushering in a "fertile and favourable" new year.
But it's the Festa de São Gonçalo, held in Amarante over the first weekend of June, that sees the real penis cake action take place. Kids clutch candy floss, the townspeople lightly tap their feet to the sound of rhythmic drums (the vibe is more village fete than Rio Carnival), and bunting made from paper penises (or is it penii? I find myself wondering) flaps suggestively in the breeze. Women wearing checked tabards and serious expressions offer me cakes in every shape and size, from foot-long phallic feasts to little plastic bags of "fun size" pastry penises that I can't help but stock up on as souvenirs.
Fueled on sangria, amorous young men offer foot-long phallic cakes to giggling objects of their affections while local "spinsters" (basically anyone who's entered their mid-20s without coupling up and procreating) receive the super-suggestive bolos as a not-so-subtle hint for Greater Powers to give them a helping hand with the baby-making.
But how did this traditional town come to be obsessed with cakes that look like something from a particularly lairy Blackpool hen night? And what's Saint Gonçalo got to do with it? Was he possessed of a particularly large or cake-like physique?
The exact origins are hazy, but Saint Gonçalo, a 13th Century priest who lived in the town, was said to be possessed of certain "matchmaking" gifts, and the naughty pastries are most likely relics of a pre-Catholic era that snuck into more modern religious rituals.
Sonia Files from the Amarante tourism board explains: "The ritual of handing out the cakes of Saint Gonçalo probably go back to the Roman age or even to pre- and proto-historical societies. The rituals remain, and are represented in the giving out of the phallic sweets, together with dried figs, every year on January 10, and then at the June street parties in honour of the saint."
According to Felipe Soares of Padaria Pardal (one of several Amarante bakeries to sell the envy-inducing confections year-round), the far-from-saintly sweeties were banned in the late 1920s by the Portuguese dictatorship that branded them "obscene," but locals continued to make and exchange them in secret. These "rustic, lightly sweetened" cakes made their full—ahem—comeback in the 1970s, after the Carnation Revolution that brought a return to democracy, and today are more abundant than ever.
In fact, the penis-pastry trend seems to be catching on. A friend recently relocated to the northern Portuguese town of Aveiro sends me pictures of penis-shaped bread sitting proudly in the window of a local family-run bakery, perhaps in homage to the famous willy cakes of their northern neighbour.
Gonçalo Azevedo is a Lisbonite whose family hails from northern Portugal and grew up with the tradition of exchanging phallic cakes.
"Handing out pastries shaped like a penis might seem like an odd custom, but there's really nothing offensive in it, and anybody growing up in northern Portugal is aware of the phallic cakes from a young age," he tells me. "Some other northern towns now sell phallic pastry products too, it's quite a thing in the north."
Keen to emphasise that he wasn't named in honour of the famous saint, Azevedo adds: "I don't think I'd go around offering penis-shaped pastry products to young women in Lisbon (they'd probably prefer it if you brought them a drink) but in Amarante it's perfectly normal and taken in a spirit of festivity. The French may have their red roses, but the Portuguese have their phallic cakes, and I'm pretty sure the tradition is here to stay."