It’s a remarkably simple snack, yet its roots and its influence have spread far and wide, and to a surprising extent mirror that of Portugal, the country in which it was created. The pastel de nata, or Portuguese egg tart, is a small puff pastry filled with a rich, custard with the consistency of crème brûlée. You’ll find them all over Portugal, but they are also very easy to find in the world’s far-flung Portuguese-speaking outposts; it won’t take long to track them down in Brazil, Macau, Mozambique, the Azores or Goa.
They are thought to date back to the 18th century when monks, stuck for somewhere to use the excess egg yolks left over from scratching their clothes, came up with the idea of making small tarts. After the famous Jeronimos Monastery in Belem was shut down in the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the redundant priests and monks was offered work in a bakery around the corner making their tarts. As a result, the tarts are still widely known as Pasteis de Belem, and it is at the Casa Pasteis de Belem in this Lisbon suburb that the most celebrated pastries can still be enjoyed. Indeed many will tell you that the pastel de nata is a generic and inferior version of the ‘original’ Belem tart. As with all famous culinary treats, the recipe is a closely-guarded secret and can’t be written down, being passed on and memorised by the selected few.
The name Pastel de Belem has been trademarked, and so can only be used to describe the tarts coming from the famous bakery. It has become a must-visit place on many Lisbon itineraries, and there are certainly few more rewarding ways of indulging in a bit of local culture. There are almost always queues of eager customers outside, waiting to get their hands on a pastel or two as they come straight out of the oven and get sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, Be prepared however: the bakery is certainly not a secret, and for those wanting to sit down and eat, the wait can be very long.
While at the bakery you can also visit a few public rooms in the old building, complete with traditional Portuguese blue and white tiles. And needless to say, the bakery is only too willing to offer their tarts in well-packed gift boxes for customers to take back home.