Pastel de nata: How the tart got its start
The origins of Portugal's famous egg custard tart and where to find the best ones in Lisbon.
Many European countries have successfully exported their cuisines abroad - Spanish tapas, French pastries, Italian pasta and pizza - but the food of Portugal isn’t as easy to come by. (Sorry, but Nandos is a South African chain which uses an Afro-Portuguese sauce, so it doesn't really count.)
Throughout history Portugal has influenced numerous dishes across the globe, from Japanese tempura to Goan vindaloo. But while their influence has helped to create some of food’s greatest fusions, Portugal’s native cuisine has been overlooked.
There is one Portuguese treat, however, that’s taken the world by storm - pastel de nata, the Portuguese egg custard tart. Literally translating to ‘egg tart pastry’, the little pastries are now famous around the world.
Pastéis de nata (the plural of pastel, FYI), are little puff pastry tarts filled with a creamy egg custard that have been slightly burned on top to give them their signature look. They’re often eaten as they come, or with a sprinkling of cinnamon or icing sugar.
They've received numerous praise over the years, having been called ‘true sublimity’, a ‘national treasure’ and the ‘Yoda of egg tarts’, as well as appearing on The Guardian’s list of the 50 best things to eat in the world.
Nuno Mendes, Lisbon native and author of the cookbook Lisboeta: Recipes from Portugal's City of Light, puts it well when he writes, ‘When you mention Portuguese food, most people think of pastéis de nata, our glorious custard tarts.’
So, with these sweet Portuguese pastries in mind, it seemed fitting that on my recent trip to Lisbon I should explore the history of the ubiquitous pastry. And, for research purposes only, eat as many as I could find.
Nun leftover: The original pastéis de nata
Today, pastéis de nata can be found in nearly every pastry shop, or pastelarias, in mainland Portugal, as well as on Madeira and the Azores Islands, where they’re known asqueijadas de nata.
They originated sometime before the seventeenth century in the Santa Maria de Belém quarter of Lisbon, when a large amount of nuns moved into the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Hieronymite Monastery).
The nuns, wanting to look sharp in the eyes of the Lord, used egg whites to starch their clothes and wimples. They looked great, yes, but this also resulted in huge amounts of unused yolks. So what to do?
Luckily, during this period it was already common for religious orders to make and sell pastries to bring in extra income, so the industrious monks used the nun’s leftover yolks to create the now-famous custard tarts.
From nada to nata: The birth of pastéis de Belém
After the Liberal Revolution of 1820, however, the country’s convents, monasteries and religious orders were shut down and the monks of Belém had to look for other ways to survive. They did so by selling their custard tarts in a nearby shop, which was conveniently attached to a sugar cane refinery.
The pastries soon took off and in 1837 a bakery was founded on the same site (called Antiga Confeitaria de Belém), serving the freshly baked treats which came to be known as pastéis de Belém.
Julian Baggini, writing in The Guardian, explains that pastéis de Belém are distinct from other pastéis de nata by their ‘slightly salty and extremely crisp’ puff pastry, as well as the custard, which is made only with milk, not cream. Nuno Mendes reminisces about visiting the bakery with his grandmother, where he would scoop out the custard when she wasn’t looking, describing the filling as having ‘a soft scent of citrus’.
According to the bakery’s website, when production began, Belém was still considered to be relatively far from the main city. But visitors, attracted by the beauty of monastery, ‘soon grew used to savouring the delicious pastries’.
The secret to success
The recipe remains unchanged to this day, but the popularity of the tart only seems to be growing. Earlier this year, it was reported that the bakery was the most reviewed eatery in the world, with over 10,000 reviews on TripAdvisor in 2017 alone. Rebecca Seal, author of Lisbon: Recipes from the Heart of Portugal, told The Independent that the bakery produces up to 50,000 tarts a day during peak season. She added, ‘The recipe is kept a secret, with only the family and three people who make them in the know as to exactly how they're made’.
But while Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is the most popular bakery in Lisbon, it’s by no means the only place to tuck into the tart. The cobbled streets of Lisbon are overflowing with pastelarias where you can purchase a pastel de nata (or twelve). The pastry is so popular that many bakeries have their own secret recipes and variations - quite clearly an invitation to sample and compare as many as you can stomach.
Where to eat pastéis de nata in Lisbon
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém Rua de Belém nº 84 a 92, 1300 – 085 Lisboa, Portugal
I made it across to Belém to breakfast at the famous bakery. After frantically hovering over tourists enjoying their pastries, I swiped a table from an old German couple who were both impressed and disgusted by my vulturistic behaviour.
Settled in, my friends and I ordered coffees, toast, other interesting looking pastries, and of course, pastéis de Belém. With crisp, flaky pastry, creamy yellow filling and a heavy sprinkling of cinnamon, they lived up to the hype.
Manteigaria Rua do Loreto, 2, Lisboa, Portugal
If you’re in Barrio Alto, Lisbon’s ‘trendiest’ neighbourhood, you can sample some delicious nata at Manteigaria (they also have a store at the Time Out Market). The tarts from here are particularly delicious and while they aren’t the most famous, they’re often cited as the best (and I’d have to agree).
Pastelaria Sao Roque 57 Rua Dom Pedro V, Lisbon 1200, Portugal
If you’re after a place for some breakfast nata and a coffee, head to Pastelaria Sao Roque, a pastelaria with a decadent domed ceiling, marble columns and ornate counters.