Ahh… the Portuguese custard tart. In all it’s custardy, creamy, crispy, cinnamon dusted glory. Most commonly consumed in a café alongside a short, strong coffee. But this unusual beachside backdrop serves only to prove that they are tempting enough to indulge in even when all potential areas under attack by said custard tart are vulnerably exposed by the bikini.
They are that good!
The custard tart – or pastel de nata (pron. natter, rather than naahrter as I have noticed is the tendency amongst us Brits) – is one of Portugal’s most famous delicacies. In typical Portuguese fashion, it is a simple and humble delicacy. But a delicacy nonetheless. And it has a long and wonderful history, dating back to the early 19th century.
Any visitor to Portugal will be hard pushed not to notice the reams and reams of egg based sweets available in all the pastelarias and cafes – and anyone who has taken the time to ask what all of these slightly scarily-yellow coloured treats are called, will have noticed also that they have some rather obscure names with strangely “religious” undertones… Beijinhos de Freira - Nun's little kisses, Papos do Anjo - Angel's Double-Chins, Toucinho do Céu - Heaven’s Bacon... I could go on.
The reason being, that it was the industrious men and women of the cloth who came up with these wonderfully sweet eggy treats – hence the collective name Doces Conventuais (convent sweets). Huge volumes of egg whites were used in the process of starching the monks’ vestibules and nuns’ habits (as well as being used by local wine producers to clarify their wines). And so, what to do with all the yolks? Combine with sugar and invent hundreds of recipes to satisfy that notorious Portuguese sweet tooth – of course!
The custard tart has become the most famous of the Doces Conventuais and was invented by the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery in the Belém district of Lisbon. In 1834, all convents and monasteries in Portugal were shut down as a result of the liberal revolution. In an attempt at survival the Jerónimos monks baked sweet custard tarts and sold them in the local general store to raise funds. The pastries soon became famous and they have been baking them according to the original, secret recipe at the Pastéis de Belém ever since.
Over the years, these tarts have been rolled out across the country and there are so many variations on a theme it’s impossible to keep up. However, when in Lisbon, try Aloma (award winning pastéis), which can be found at the Ribeira food market in Cais do Sodré. Or Manteigaria in Praça Luís de Camões. But in my opinion, it’s always worth making the short train journey to Belém and getting in line for the original and (in my mind) the best.
Make a day of it and visit the stunning Jerónimos Monastery, walk through the manicured gardens down to the river, climb to the top of the Belém tower, soak up some modern art and culture at the incredible Cultural Centre… and then get back in line for another nata.
Well, when in Rome…