Despite it being an Easter essential, this Portuguese variation of a sponge cake can be found all year round and it is one of the country’s favourite sweet traditions. Pão de Ló has a long history and a curious name, and it is this week’s IATE Food Term.
The origins of Pão de Ló
Plenty of sugar, a lot of eggs and some flour… It seems just another Portuguese doce conventual, right? These type of traditional desserts were created in convents and are a staple of Portugal’s cuisine (the famous pastel de nata is one of them). However, contrary to popular belief, the Portuguese cannot get full credit for inventing Pão de Ló.
It is generally believed that talented Italian cooks created the original recipe during the Renaissance Era in Spain. One of the stories mentions the pastry cook Giovan Battista Cabona. While he was accompanying the ambassador of Genoa on a trip to Spain, he presented this cake to the King of Spain, and later named it Pan di Spagna (Bread of Spain). After that, a myriad of variations popped up all around the world, from the Génoise in Italy to the Filipino Mamón. Even the famous Kasutera from Japan is part of this family. Indeed, the Japanese word derives from the Portuguese Pão de Castela.
What does “Ló” mean?
The translation and meaning of pão de is straightforward: it is simply “bread of”. However, the meaning and the reason behind the usage of Ló is disputed and unclear even to the Portuguese. Some say that the name derives from Lot, the last name of a German man who supposedly created this version of the cake.
According to another theory, this word evolved from the old French pain de lof, which, in turn, is a lexical borrowing of the Dutch loef. In this case, Ló is a naval term referring to the side from which the wind blows (the windward side).
Pão de Ló across Portugal
The Pães de Ló (plural of Pão de Ló) can be different depending on the region of Portugal that produces them. Some of the most famous variations include Pão de Ló de Ovar and Pão de Ló de Alfeizarão. The latter is moist, almost liquid inside, and it is said to have been accidentally created by a group of nuns who undercooked a cake that they anxiously served to the King.
This dessert has even represented Portugal as a member state of the EU. In 2007, as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, 54 cakes from each member state were served in a ceremony in Berlin, and two different versions of the Pão de Ló, including the Pão de Ló de Alfeizarão, were chosen.
If you are now longing for some sponge cake, you have a good excuse: the 23rd of August is Sponge Cake Day in America, and it is never too late to celebrate with whichever variety is the nearest and dearest to you!
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Jornal Expresso. 2021. Expresso | Pão-de-ló representará Portugal. [ONLINE] Available at: https://expresso.pt/dossies/dossiest_economia/dos_tratado_roma/pao-de-lo-representara-portugal=f95146. [Accessed 06 September 2021].
National Today. 2021. National Sponge Cake Day – August 23, 2022 | National Today. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nationaltoday.com/national-sponge-cake-day/. [Accessed 06 September 2021].
Written by Margarida Castro, Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit. She holds a Bachelors in Languages and International Relations from the University of Porto and is currently a student of the European Master in Lexicography (EMLex) at the University of Minho.