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Breakfast, snack, dessert: Many people in Portugal eat the beloved custard tarts known as pastéis de nata anytime they can. “I could eat one with my coffee every day,” says Célia Pedroso, the Lisbon bureau chief of the excellent food tour company Culinary Backstreets and co-author of Eat Portugal: The Essential Guide to Portuguese Food. “They’re irresistible. I can’t say no.”
The tarts originated before the 18th century in monasteries, which like convent kitchens, functioned a bit like culinary laboratories, says Pedroso. Some of the main experiments involved finding uses for all the egg yolks left over after the whites were used for starching habits and bed sheets, as well as for filtering wine.
In the pastéis (pastries), the egg yolks form the basis of a custard that’s also made with milk, sugar, whole eggs, water and a little flour, all heated with cinnamon sticks. “The custard can be richer or lighter. The important thing is that tarts are a delicate balance of pastry, custard and cinnamon,” says Pedroso, who says good renditions can now be found across the country, in places ranging from the dessert menus at star chef José Avillez’s high-end restaurants to corner cafes where they sell for €1.
But the monks’ treat first became mainstream in the Belém District of Lisbon, when, after the Liberal Revolution of 1820, many monasteries and convents were asked to close. Needing a way to support themselves, the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery began selling the tarts at a nearby sugar refinery. Eventually, in 1834, they sold the recipe itself to the refinery’s owner, who by 1837 transformed his business into a pastry shop.
That shop, Pastéis de Belem, has since grown into a perennially packed 400-seat, five-room café with a show kitchen that can serve 20,000 of the pastries a day. (But only just under half the customers are foreign tourists—it’s still worth a trip for Lisboners.) “A lot has changed, but not the recipe,” says Miguel Clarinha, a fourth-generation member of the family that has owned and managed the place for a century. “They’re still almost totally handmade, and everything is baked and sold on the same day. This is a very perishable product.”
He also notes that Pastéis de Belem (a name that has been trademarked) are different from the more common pasteis de nata found elsewhere: less sweet and with a saltier crust. But what makes them special is more ineffable. “The secret is in the way you mix them.” And in “being able to keep the history of the place and the identity of the tradition.” The building still has some original Portuguese tiles on the walls.
It used to be the only place to go, says Pedroso, but now there are others. She sites the popular Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata, whose three-year-old flagship is in Lisbon’s posh Chiado district and makes such a point of proving that the snacks are best when they’re still warm from the oven that the shopkeepers ring a bell each time a new batch emerges, every 20 minutes between 8am and midnight.
When they’re warm, “the sensation is different,” says store manager Daniel Silva. “Our idea is to make the cooking visible to the client and the product always fresh and warm.” That and using the “right ingredients,” in this case real butter in the crust (some pastelerias use margarine, which still seems to be surprisingly common in everyday Portuguese baking) and a hint of lemon in the custard to cut the sweetness in the custard.
And of course, everything is made the old-fashioned way, by hand. “There’s even a specific way we finish our crust,” says Silva, who also notes that his shop uses much hotter ovens—450°C (nearly 850°F)—than most bakeries even own. “I can taste the difference between a pastel made elsewhere and one of mine,” he says.
For understandable reasons, neither bakery will reveal its secret recipe—only a few employees even know all the details, as the bakers have specific jobs.