Castella returns to its roots

Pair strive to revive traditional sponge cake in Portugal

by

Kyodo

Castella, a sponge cake popular in Japan that legend has it was introduced to the country in Nagasaki by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, has been undergoing a revival in the land of its creation.

The moist, sweet cake was “brought back home” for the first time in more than 400 years in the mid-1990s by Paulo Duarte, 39, a Portuguese workman who received training in Nagasaki, and his Japanese wife, Tomoko, 45.

Their confectionery shop, Castella do Paulo, which the couple opened in 1996, is located on a corner of the government office area along the Tejo River, which flows into the Atlantic. The factory that produces the cake is on the opposite bank of the river.

Every day Duarte creates the mixture of eggs, sugar and wheat flour and bakes it in a frame designed for 10 pieces of cake each about 10 cm wide and 26 cm long.

His wife, a researcher of traditional confectionery, goes to and from the factory by ferry during breaks at their shop and helps her husband cut and box the castella.

She studied at Shimane University’s agriculture faculty. It was while she was traveling in Nagasaki that she first encountered castella. “I became interested in what Western confectionery of that time is like now.”

In 1985, she went to Lisbon to work in a confectionery shop and it was there she met Paulo, who was in his late teens but had been working since age 12 because his family was poor.

Two years later they married, and in 1993 when Japan and Portugal celebrated 450 years of friendship, Duarte visited Nagasaki to take part in an event to introduce Portuguese cakes and encountered castella.

“I was surprised to see castella doing well only in Japan, both in its taste and appearance,” he said. For three months from January 1996, he learned the technique of making castella at the well-established Nagasaki maker, Syououken Corp.

There is no actual cake called castella in Portugal, and what was reportedly introduced into Japan was a type of bread from Castilla, the Spanish kingdom that prospered in the Middle Ages. One original model for this was said to be a Portuguese cake called “Pan de lo” — but it lacked sufficient moistness and sweetness.

“In Lisbon, castella has been recognized and the number of our customers is increasing,” Tomoko said. “Our business has at last been getting off the ground.”

A piece of castella at the shop costs 8 euro (¥1,300). The shop’s Japanese-style melon bread and bean paste buns are also becoming popular.