With a wonderfully crisp and flaky pastry shell filled with a thick, creamy, sweet custard slightly burnt on the top, the pastel de nata (custard tart) is one of Portugal’s most popular pastries, but its origins can be traced back to one shop, the Pastéis de Belém shop and café in the Belém district of Lisbon. The shop is very near the famous Manueline-style Jeronimos Monastery and in the fifteenth-century the monks created a tart which would use up the large number of egg yolks they had left over after using the egg whites as laundry starch. At this time sugar from the Americas and cinnamon from the East Indies were introduced into Portugal and the pastel de nata was born. In 1837, after a 1820 revolution which suppressed religious order and forced the monastery to close, the recipe was given to the shop next door to the monastery so that the pastel de nata would continue. The recipe has remained secret since then and there is only one genuine pastel de nata recipe, which is called pastel de Belém to distinguish it from all other pastéis de nata. All other recipes are attempts (albeit often very good attempts) to recreate the pastel de Belém recipe.
You can’t miss the shop on Rua de Belém as there is always a queue for the freshly baked pastéis de Belém, which are still made by hand using the original recipe.
You can buy the tarts to take away, along with a sachet of cinnamon and a sachet of icing sugar to sprinkle on according to taste, or better still get a table in the café at the back of the shop and enjoy your pastel de Belém with a cup of coffee, while enjoying the azulejos-decorated surroundings.
Don’t worry if you can’t get to Belém, as every pastelaria (cafés selling pastries and cakes) in every village, town and city in Portugal sells pastéis de nata, which are usually as good as the real thing in my opinion. If you try to make your own I have found that they are not the easiest tart to bake, as it can be a challenge getting the pastry shells the right texture and the custard filling can be a bit fiddly. That’s why I always over-indulge in them when I am in Portugal!
Pastéis de Belém, Rua Belém, Lisbon. Open every day: 1st Oct-30th June 8am-11pm; 1st July-30th Sept 8am-midnight.