Story and Photos by Wanda Hennig.
Pastéis de nata: Portugal’s sweetest and most replicated tartlets. Versions of them tempt fans in cafés, tea rooms, coffee shops and bakery delis in cities around the world. Having tasted many while on a recent month-long trip roaming cities and towns running from Porto to Faro in the Algarve, I can unreservedly recommend a pilgrimage to the Belém neighborhood in Lisbon to sample “the original”—the one I would unhesitatingly say is the gold standard. The one I would wager a bet designating: best in the world. It was a chance discovery, as the best ones while traveling often are.
To backtrack in the interest of context, not a day went by during my Portugal expedition that I didn’t stop in at least a couple of times for a coffee, usually a double espresso, sometimes with a dash of milk, and a pastry. At first I often went for the ubiquitous pastel de nata (pastéis de nata, plural, as one is sometimes not enough) the miniature baked custard tart, sometimes called “the archetypal Portuguese pastry.” But by Lisbon, my last stop before flying home, I had pretty much given up on them, to be honest, finding them often overly sweet and softly pudgy and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Little did I imagine that the definitive version was a luscious and distinctive treat, different as chalk and cheese from those baked en masse and sent to outlets around Portugal. Or those I’d tasted in other countries, which, to my palate, were sometimes pretty good but often, ordinary.
The afternoon I arrived in Lisbon, having walked the streets and finally found comfy and affordable digs in the happening Baixa-Chiado district, and with an all-day transit pass I didn’t want to waste, I randomly jumped aboard a bus that would take me to the Belém neighborhood.
There, I discovered Lisbon’s impressive Berardo Collection Museum (of modern and contemporary art); the city’s energy, science and industrial archeology-focused Electricity Museum (located in an old power station); the ice-cream pink Belém Palace, official home of Portugal’s president; the richly ornate Unesco World Heritage Site late-Gothic style Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Monastery of Jeronimos), built around 1459 and originally home for the Hieronymite religious order.
And then, a couple of doors away from this, near-neighbors with a Starbucks, a huge throng of people standing in a line chatting and jostling and obviously waiting for—something—that was inside a blue-awninged café.
“What is this place? Why are you all here?” I ask nobody in particular, scanning the crowd for anyone who speaks English and is prepared to answer. And at the same time joining the line, because isn’t this the mandatory thing to do when you see one while traveling? So you don’t miss out. “For the pastéis,” a woman says. “This is the place to buy them.”
It turns out this is Café de Belém—better known as the Pastéis de Belém —the place where the original version of the famed pastéis de nata was created more than 200 years ago.
Their website tells me that when the Monastery of Jeronimos, a stone’s throw away, along with all convents in Portugal, was shut down as a result of the liberal revolution of 1820 (when clergy and staff were expelled), an enterprising former monastery resident decided to bake and sell pastries from an adjoining sugar cane refinery and general store. And so pastéis de nata were born.
You can stand in line and purchase “to go” from Café de Belém or you can sit down at a marble-topped table in one of several rooms decorated with Portuguese tiles and jammed with locals and tourists enjoying pastéis and other items. If you don’t want coffee or tea, you can order from shelves lined with bottles of sparkling wine—all the while relishing the aroma wafting from massive trays of warm tarts.
In total, 19,000 are sold from this place on an average day.
I stand in line and order four. They come perfectly packaged in a tube-shaped take-out box. And when I bite into the first, unlike those I ate before, I get to relish the heavenly flavor of light and crispy golden pastry nests—with just enough salt to cut the sweetness—filled with a seductive luscious custard that’s warm, melt-in-the-mouth creamy and topped with a subtle dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon.
On my trip to Portugal I was lucky to meet up with Carla Macedo, a culinary tour guide with Lisboa Autêntica. Macedo is a specialist in the Portuguese capital’s sweeter side.
From her I learned that many of Portugal’s famed pastries were invented by nuns when, back in the 1800s, young women from rich families, with little chance of inheriting, were dispatched to the country’s more than 300 convents.
With nothing better to do, they hung out in the monastery kitchens, experimented with recipes and were responsible for many of the more than 200 varieties of biscuits, cakes and pastries, known collectively as doces (sweets), found in the multitude of pastelaria and confeitaria that are a feature of every Portuguese neighborhood.
The story goes that the egg yolk became a central ingredient in Portuguese baking (the best are often creamy and custardy) because the nuns used so many egg whites to starch their habits that they had to do something with the yolks.
Pastéis de Belém, meanwhile, has been in operation since 1837 using the same closely guarded recipe, apparently known to only a few hands-on master chefs. It is the most-frequented pastry shop in Portugal. It’s a tourist draw, but also the spot to go for locals who know there’s no place better to enjoy their much loved pastries.
Google “pastéis de nata recipe” to make them at home. Better still, make that pilgrimage to Lisbon.
IF YOU GO:
For Lisbon culinary tour ideas visit the Lisboa Autêntica website: lisboaautentica.com/en/