Did you know that in the 18th century there were cafés in Lisbon where Neve (snow) was sold? We’re gonna tell you this interesting story and its connection to the Royal Factory of Ice.
It was during our research for the article 5 Classic Ice Cream Shops in Avenidas Novas that we’ve found out that 300 years ago the upper classes of Lisbon consumed Neve during summertime.
We’ve decided to share with our readers the story of this important tangible and intangible patrimony, following our recent visit to the Royal Factory of Ice – a peculiar industrial complex in the middle of the Protected Landscape of Serra de Montejunto. This is a magnificent, worth-visiting and protecting place, as well as refuge for fauna and flora species.
The Story of Neve
Did you know that the consumption of ice cream isn’t a milestone of the 20th century and, although surprising, it actually goes way back?
In Lisbon, already in mid-18th century there was a shop where people could eat Neve, the Casa da Neve (House of Snow). Do you have any idea of where it was? But wait… snow Lisbon? Where did the ice come from? Do the neveiros of Coentral and the Royal Factory of Ice mean something to you? We’ll explain:
At least since the 17th century that ice would arrive to Lisbon from Serra da Estrela. It is known that there was a contract between the City Council of Lisbon and the neveiro (a person who sells snow) Paulo Domingues in 1619, but also that before that the commercialisation of snow already existed.
In the same year, King Filipe II of Portugal was staying in Lisbon and it is known that on his table there were always cold drinks and Neve.
Since then the consumption of ice rose, reaching the population of Lisbon in general. But where did the ice come from?
Snow Collecting Industry of Coentral in Serra da Lousã
In Serra da Lousã, concretely in the village of Coentral, existed a rudimentary snow collecting industry. It consisted in deep wells to where the local people transported snow that was compacted with big mallets by pavers.
This way, large accumulations of ice were formed, then cut and transported in ox carts across the mountain all the way to Vila Nova da Barquinha. Here, the ice was moved to boats that reached the Terreiro do Paço (nowadays Praça do Comércio) through the Tagus River.
In Lisbon, this hard work was well paid to contractors and neveiros, but poorly paid to local workers. It was only in the 19th century that the families from Coentral took over the business just before the activity became obsolete and consequently disappeared.
Royal Factory of Ice of the Serra de Montejunto
When we mention the Portuguese industrial development of the 18th century, we immediately think of the designation of Royal Factory.
The Royal Factory of Crockery, of Silk Tissue and of Textile are famous, but have you ever heard of the Royal Factory of Ice?
Throughout the 18th century the consumption of ice increased in such a way that it was necessary to find a solution to complement the usual supplier.
For that reason, in around 1741 the Royal Factory of Ice – one of the rare exemplars of this type existent in Europe and one of the most technologically advanced ones – that produced ice daily between the months of September and April throughout 120 years.
The Factory was built facing north on the coldest and most humid hillside, 600m above sea level, in Serra de Montejunto, the highest elevation of Estremadura. Located 65 km away from the capital, in the north of the district of Lisbon, in the Municipality of Cadaval, this mountain met the necessary conditions to form ice during winter.
The Industrial Process of the Production of Ice
The Royal Factory of Ice consisted of a complex formed by two nuclei, one dedicated to the production and another destined for the ice’s conservation and preparation for dispatch.
The production process was based on a water collection system using a noria and on its storage in big reservoirs that, in turn, filled tanks where water wouldn’t surpass 10 to 12 cm of height, so that it could easily freeze when subject to low temperatures at night.
Before daybreak it was necessary to collect the ice that was formed and to transport it to the storage area. A bugler would then give the sign and the people of the neighbouring villages rushed in hope of being the first 30 to arrive. These were guaranteed an arduous and underpaid job that still added something to their meager families’ incomes.
It’s tough to imagine what it’d be like to cross the steep mountain every night in Winter with no guarantee of getting paid. This toilsome job consisted of breaking and collecting the ice from the tanks and transporting it in heavy boxes to cold silos, where they’d tread the ice, so that it’d be in the best conditions to be conserved and later on dispatched.
When that time came around the blocks of ice were wrapped in straw and hessian and loaded on donkeys or ox carts that transported them to Vala do Carregado. From there, they were transported to Lisbon in the so-called snow boats.
The Patrimony of the Royal Factory of Ice
The hygiene conditions were a constant worry. The silos of 10m of depth had a wooden bottom sitting on stones to avoid the accumulation of water and were frequently whitewashed. The Royal Factory of Ice had, for that reason, a big lime kiln that continued operating even after the factory’s shutdown and of which we can still see traces.
We can also observe the Casa da Nora (Noria House), a big reservoir and 44 tanks, but it’s known that there existed many others plus a second reservoir, which were destroyed or are now buried under the Portuguese Air Force’s quarter, built in the 1950s.
Moreover, there’s the Casa dos Silos (Silos House) that features a simple but imposing façade. Above the main door there’s the figure of Saint Anthony of the Snow, as well as an inscription about the purchase and reconstruction of the factory by the neveiro of the Royal House, Julião Pereira de Castro, who also led the neveiros of Coentral and owned the monopoly of the production of snow and ice of the kingdom.
Despite the name Royal Factory of Ice, it never belonged to the Government. Instead, it has always belonged to private entities, having stayed within the same family until its expropriation in 1930.
The factory had already shut down in 1885 and was abandoned and forgotten about until it was classified as National Monument in 1997. After conservation and requalification interventions, it was opened to the public in 2011.
Neve in Lisbon
When arriving to Terreiro do Paço, the ice had several destinations.
In the first place, the Noble House, but also the Hospital, storage silos and cafés.
The ice had many uses, including therapeutic ones, being one of its main consumers the All Saints Royal Hospital that existed in Rossio until the earthquake of 1755.
It is known that there were ice storage tanks in Lisbon near the National Theatre of São Carlos and in the zone of Graça.
When it comes to cafés, the most famous one and perhaps the first one, inaugurated in 1778, was the Casa da Neve, nothing less than the currently well-known Café-Restaurant Martinho da Arcada. Here the ice was transformed into appetising and famous Neve.
Throughout the 19th century many other famous cafés served to their clients the so appreciated ice creams… I beg your pardon, Neve.
It was announced at the door of the Conservaria Pomona, a house specialised in fruits in syrup and Neve, but also brewery and later pastry. Pomona has closed down in the meantime, but in the corner of Rua da Prata with Rua de São Nicolau, in downtown Lisbon, still remains carved in stone the specialties of this café.
Another example is the Café Gelo (directly translated to Café Ice) in Rossio that dates from 1890 and owes its name to the commercialization of the desired Neve.
Plan Your Visit to the Royal Factory of Ice
Today, the industrial complex of the Royal Factory of Ice can be visited through guided tours that take place every day. Although they’re in Portuguese, the entire exhibition is available in english. The area is fenced and is closed to the public outside of visit hours so don’t be late!
This trip is worth it not only for the obvious fact that the complex of the Royal Factory of Ice is so interesting, but also for the magnificent landscapes marked by wells, vineyards and for the appealing gastronomy of this region.
You can also opt for a picnic at the leafy picnic park.Or you can even have an ice cream at the welcoming factory’s cafeteria while you reflect about this fascinating but harsh story of Neve.