The cook Guilhermina

Guilhermina was from S. João da Pesqueira and came to work at the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais in 1968. Her brother-in-law was already working there, as head of the kitchen and at one point she called her brother. “As it didn’t make sense for my husband to be at the Torch and my four children and I being away, after a month of being here, he arranged his life and we came too.”

“My husband worked at the warehouse, he was a clerk, he walked outside, he went to Porto, Lisbon, Coimbra, he took a list from the boss and went with a driver to do the shopping for the hospital.”

Guilhermina came to work at the Hospital when she was 32 years old and started in the laundry room – “she washed the Sisters’ clothes and ironed them with one of them. At that time there were almost 30 sisters in the convent.” She no longer remembers the name of the first sister she worked with, only that she was from Madeira and that the following were called Deolinda and Marta. She told us that the sick’s clothes were washed by staff and that the laundry room had huge drums and a big ironer for sheets and pillows.

She liked working in the laundry room. But she confided to us that “when I came here this was still very infected and I was very afraid”. In the early days when she had to take her smocks and starched pants to the doctors at the hospital “she was so afraid, she was amazed at the wounds the sick had. They were so martyred, mutilated, they had so many injuries… Some were blind, others with crippled or mutilated hands and feet… If I had come to work with them I wouldn’t have been able to stand it because I would shiver all over. I don’t know, there’s no explanation, that was superior to me. I could not. It was more than the contagion itself! It was seeing them and seeing that suffering. If it was a relative of mine, I wouldn’t be able to go visit him.”

From this initial phase, she also recalled how well organized, clean and beautiful everything was: “don’t you even want to know, when I came here, it was a paradise. There were flowers everywhere, the houses were always painted, the floor was shiny! They had a cleaning here! It was something beautiful to see! And, the gardens were beautiful!” And, at that time, outside, not all people had a bathroom…

Guilhermina mentioned that there was a foreman who treated everything very well and “the staff worked with pleasure, with opinion, presumption in seeing this beautiful”.

Sometimes she was asked to clean the administrators’ offices in the convent, and on the way she picked flowers for the vases in each of the offices. Once, the foreman said to her: “Oh girl, don’t come here to get what I’ve got (pick flowers). This is just for us to see this paradise, he said. But as I told him it was for the offices, he let me take one here, another there. He couldn’t take them all from the same place!”

Three years later she went to work in the kitchen and about this transition she told us: “I really liked to cook, one day I went to take a cook off, I went there and they never take me out again, I went to the secretary to ask, because I liked being in the laundry room! It’s not that I didn’t like the kitchen, but it was a much bigger responsibility. It was said that while I was in the Hospital, I was in the kitchen, and I had no choice but to accept it. I couldn’t go home because I had four children to raise and I had my mother-in-law with me. I had to work.”

And it was in one of the most beautiful buildings in the Colony, from an architectural point of view, that she started to work. Giving us a picture of what it was like inside and how it works, she said: “the general kitchen was well organized and very functional. It had three compartments – one for fish, another for potatoes and vegetables, and another for washing dishes that got dirty in the kitchen. The sick dishes were washed in a separate place and placed in thermal boxes that went for disinfection. We had everything to be able to work and to work well, nothing was missing, and from the pantry, which was huge and was next to the kitchen, everything was needed.”

Continuing, Guilhermina tells us, in a good mood, one of the pranks that her colleagues played on her when she went to work there: “In the kitchen, where food was prepared for the sick, there were huge cauldrons. I fit in there. Once, one of the cooks took me in his arms and put me in the cauldron and closed the lid. I got scared by that and screamed – get me out of here! But they laughed, they laughed. They made fun of me because I was the youngest… And sometimes I wanted to work and they took things away. It was a joke!”

Then the older colleagues retired and Guilhermina became responsible for the kitchen. At that time, she was already defining the menus with Mr. Pais Alves.

We wanted to know what food was like at the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais and Guilhermina told us that “every day there was meat and fish, one for lunch and the other for dinner. (…) The doctors would taste the food before it was served to the sick. The food was very good.”

They served cozido à portuguesa, jardineira, feijoada, grão com bacalhau, carne estufada com arroz, bifes com batata frita, esparguete com carne, bacalhau à Gomes Sá, bacalhau-à-brás, arroz à valenciana, feijão-frade com peixe frito, arroz de coelho, coelho estufado com arroz seco ou com batatas fritas.On the occasion of the Christmas, Easter and New Year celebrations, they also made leitão, perú assado, bolos de bacalhau, rissóis, arroz doce, aletria, filhoses e rabanadas.

“Look, they were treated very well! But sometimes they also got bored with eating,” said Guilhermina, who does not forget an episode in which a patient threw his plate of food against the kitchen window. Following this incident, “I made a platter and took it to the cafeteria, where there were employees and asked them to taste it. Everyone said it was fine.”


Guilhermina explained that in the beginning there was a lot of own production in the Colony and there were “many employees working on the land. They raised pigs and cows, produced milk, potatoes, green beans, various vegetables, beans, carrots…” “And the bakers made bread. Bread so good! With first-rate flour! Nowhere were the sick treated so well. And we had a boss here, Mr. Pais Alves, who was very concerned. He always asked me – Is Guilhermina all right? She followed everything, and also the lands and pigsties. He was a good employee, he worked hard to make sure everything went well, so that the sick didn’t lack anything. He was human!”


In the family neighborhoods for patients lived couples of sick people who cooked their own meals. They received food from the kitchen pantry. “And they took everything that was good, beef, chicken, fish and cod. They had everything good, eggs, everything! And when there were parties, they went to the kitchen to fetch the things that had already been done.”


For Preventório, the products were also supplied by the pantry of the general kitchen. “And they had a good cook there. Sometimes there were big conferences there and I would go there to help. I still went there to the Preventório to cook with this cook. But all that was good was for those boys. And the director was very zealous and demanding.”


Guilhermina spent “32 years and ten months” working in the kitchen of the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais. Even after retiring from the hospital food, which she cooked, she was repeatedly praised. Once one of her children was treated at Hospital da Figueira da Foz and when he said he worked at Hospital da Tocha, the doctor who assisted him told him about Dona Guilhermina’s magnificent soup.

(Text based on oral testimony, in 2020, validated by the interviewee. Interview and writing by Cristina Nogueira – CulturAge)