Do you want to know a little more about the most famous cake in Portugal?
Well, “Pastel de Nata” or “Pastel de Belém” is known beyond borders and much sought after by tourists visiting Portugal.
It is a tasty custard tart that can be found everywhere, which is eaten usually sprinkled with cinnamon and accompanied by a strong and short coffee, as is usual in Portugal.
Although it is not the only delight of the Portuguese pastry it is certainly the most known.
I will tell the story of this little cake and indicate the most emblematic places where you can eat it.
History of Pasteis de Nata
Pasteis de Nata is not new to the culinary world. At least not to Portugal where its history goes back to the 18th century.
The sweet story began in a monastery, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos of the Santa Maria de Belém Civil Parish, Lisbon. Back then, monasteries and convents relied on egg-whites to bleach their attire.
It was not yet the age of commercial bleaching products as today.
Consequently, they would use a lot of eggs. Where did the egg yolks go? A brilliant question you ask. The egg yolks became the core ingredients for making pastries and cakes.
The practice soon spread like bush fire to the entire country. The sweet-pastry recipe became a national trend.
In 1820, the Liberal Revolution wave swept through Portugal. Religious orders were falling, and monasteries, as well as convents, were facing imminent closure. The monks and nuns were on the breadline and desperate to make a penny.
They continued to make the sweet pastéis de nata and sell them to a sugar refinery nearby.
Come 1834; the monastery was permanently closed. With nothing to cling on, the monks sold the pastry recipe to the refinery.
The refinery owner went ahead to open Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém in 1837, which has been handed down the family lineage up to date.
In paying homage to what has become a global dessert and sweet delicacy, the Guardian in 2009 named Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém among the top 50 best foods on the globe.
The Making of Pasteis de Nata
Making Pasteis de Nata is a well-guarded secret. Those who make them hold the recipes close to their chest.
For instance, Belem Bakery never let just anyone see what goes into making the pastries.
It is only the family members and three loyal chefs who know the ingredients as well as the procedure.
All the preparation goes down behind a steel door that only the three chefs have access.
What we can come up is the best guess of what really goes on behind the curtains of making this Portuguese sweetness.
The primary ingredients include sugar, eggs, flour, milk, butter, and cinnamon. To get the perfect taste, all supplies must be fresh.
Most importantly, it is the pastry that holds the key to the great flavor. It is prepared into a puff pastry, which is used to create a circular pattern in the dough.
This is such a delicate process and requires the use of real butter to laminate the dough. Any mistake means that the pastry will not puff.
Once the pastry is ready, small portions are fitted into specifically-shaped tins.
Custard is now added. They are then put through high temperatures until they turn golden brown. Some bakers will cook the tarts until they slightly look burnt.
What are Pasteis de Nata?
You may already know what Pasteis de Nata are, but that does not mean there isn’t someone reading about them for the first time.
They are best described as egg tarts, but Portuguese pastry is the more common name.
They look more like bird nests with an outlying layer of thick pastry and the appealing golden yellow custard.
What about Pasteis de Belém, is it the same thing? Yes, it is all the same thing. However, there is a difference in place and time.
Originally, Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon is arguably the home of the best Pasteis de Nata.
Therefore, while Pasteis de Nata is the generic name for the egg tarts; Pasteis de Belém specifically refers to pastries from a bakery, Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém.
Pasteis de Nata vs Pasteis de Belém: which way to go?
As already discussed, Pasteis de Nata is the generic name for Portuguese egg tarts. Conversely, Pasteis de Belém are tarts specifically from the region of Belem where the original recipe was born.
About which one to try, it is recommendable to try both. Of course, there are variations in taste, flakiness, flavors; but it all boils down to personal preferences.
We cannot vouch for one over the other. Some people will prefer one café to another, and it is down to what appeals to your palates.
How Popular are Pasteis de Nata?
Well, they are quite a catch not only in Portugal but also the entire world. Portugal natives and foreigners alike literally queue for this sweet treat.
Collectively, bakeries keep selling thousands of these tarts every single day. The famous Belem Bakery sells not less than 20,000 pieces a day.
While visitors take a fair share of the Pastéis de nata, it is the locals who carry the day by eating the bigger portion. They will buy some for breakfast or take home a box for everyone at home.
How to Eat Pasteis de Nata like a Local
To someone who has not eaten Pastel de nata before, there is always the temptation to use a spoon. Don’t do it; such is a cardinal sin.
To do it like a local, crack the small tart piece at a time and enjoy the sweet, creamy taste. You can start from the bottom or sides.
They are best served when warm. It should not surprise that you will be ready to go for a second piece, a third and a fourth in quick succession.
These egg tarts are somewhat ‘addictive’ in a good way. There is no particular time you should eat them, but they are popular for breakfast in most Portuguese households.
Where to Eat Pasteis de Nata
When you visit Portugal, and mainly Lisbon, the egg tarts are the real deal. You can see the queues of locals and foreigners waiting for their serve.
You cannot be here and not have a taste of this great Portuguese pastry.
While Lisbon is the Mecca of Portuguese egg tarts, it does not mean the rest of Portugal Pasteis de Nata are not worth your taste buds’ time. So, where can you eat the best of them all?
1. Antiga Confeitaria de Belém- Lisbon
Belem tops the list of the most tourist-attractive places in Lisbon. However, that is not always the reasons lots of people flock there.
The long queues are not for tourists waiting for their turn at the monastery; they are after egg tarts. The pastry from here is not just any other but the trademarked “Pastéis de Belém”.
Their recipe is a well-kept secret, and only six people living today know it. Here you can make your order alongside port wine. It is the best thing you have tasted in your life.
2. Manteigaria, Lisbon
If you find yourself at Chiado, a popular shopping area, there is a pastry bar nearby. It is Manteigaria. Their doors are open at 8 am and close at midnight.
Every time there is a new batch of the hot tarts, a bell rings. This is the perfect time to go in and have them served warm.
The egg tarts from here are slightly light and flaky, but the taste is in its world. You can as well buy a few for later since they taste as good when cold.
3. Versailles, Lisbon
When you are in Lisbon for business, Saldanha is most likely in your must-visit areas.
There is a café, Versailles, serving some of the tastiest Pasteis de Nata you have ever tasted.
Inside is a Parisian décor that automatically reminds you of the 1920s era.
Their flavor is somewhat in the middle of tastes; it is not overly sweet. If you feel like grabbing a heavy lunch, they also serve delicious pork sandwiches and croquettes.
4. Briosa, Coimbra
A long way from Lisbon, precisely 200km, Coimbra is home to one of the best Pasteis de Nata café in Portugal. Briosa is one place that does not disappoint.
Their tarts are served hot and promptly. You can choose to eat yours in the cafés or have it packed for later. Notably, the pastries are averagely sweet, and you may want to come back for more.
5. Cafeteria Império, Porto
Porto is dwarfed by her sister city, Lisbon when it comes to Pasteis de Nata.
Nevertheless, the town tries her best to give you the traditional Portuguese courtesy.
As you walk down the Rua de Santa Catarina, you will see loads of tart cafes. Cafeteria Imperio is a tranquil spot to pick, and you won’t regret your choice.
You won’t have anything close to the Lisbon serves, but it is not a total waste of time and money to try out their pastry.
6. Fabrica de Nata, Porto
Fabrica de Nata has a feel-at-home theme as you make your entry. It is a walking distance from Cafeteria Império and with tastier tarts.
You can choose to take your pastries at the lower level on stools and bar tables.
Upstairs is more comfortable with couches and armchairs. You can see bakers prepare the tarts through the glass windows.
It is important to note that their Pasteis de Nata do not have cinnamon. Nevertheless, it is something you would want to sample.
Now that you know some of the iconic places where you can eat the famous cream cake all over the country, enjoy and indulge in this delicious cake.