It's got sweet, flaky pastry, it's got custard - what's not to love about Portugal's Pasteis de nata?
There’s something divine about the transformation of eggs, cream and sugar into gently set custard. So it is fitting that the most revered of custard tarts has monastic origins.
Portugal’s pastéis de nata were created in a monastery in Belém. When the cloisters closed in 1820, its clergy sold their trusty tart recipe. The buyer founded a bakery dedicated to the pastel de Belém: a flaky pastry tart filled with egg-yolk custard and baked until its crust is patchily blackened. It soon became a national treasure, travelling wherever the Portuguese went, too. In Hong Kong, via the colony of Macau, they became a staple of the dim sum house.
The Portuguese originals are still made by hand in Belém, where people queue to eat them warm, dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Like the keepers of secret recipes everywhere, the guardians of the monks’ prized formula hint at a ‘mystery’ ingredient. Various cookbook versions suggest vanilla, cornflour, even lemon. But then they also recommend – oh, the sacrilege – shop-bought puff pastry...
London’s Lisboa Patisserie is the place to sample their melt-in-the-mouth authenticity, with shots of bracing Portuguese coffee. A word of warning to the frugal, however: one is never enough.
Want to make your own? Try this Pasteis de nata recipe from Leite's Culinaria.
For more, turn to page 32 of August's The Simple Things. Not got your copy? Buy or download now.