“Pastéis de nata” or egg custard tarts, are probably the best known and loved Portuguese desert. Flaky on the outside, with a delicious creamy filling and a caramel crust, they are also bitesize and sweet enough to respond to any craving. Therefore, many people call them “a little bit of Heaven” and with very good reasons for that.
The origins of this pastry are not very clear, but it seems that the first ones were created in Lisbon, on the kitchens of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Hieronymites Monastery), in Belém. That is the reason why the tart can also be known as a “Pastel de Belém”. Even so, there are some differences…
Sugar and eggs
Since the Age of Discoveries, from the XV to the XVII centuries, Portugal had access to large amounts of sugar and the egg yolks where a byproduct from the starching of clothes, done with the egg whites. Clearly, the combination of these two products originated a national and huge cake and pastry tradition, from which the “pastéis” are kings.
In 1834, the country’s government ended all the roman-catholic religious order and the Jerónimos closed. And this is where the history of the pastry became sort of a legend. Some people say the monks sold the recipe: on the other hand, several historians say that one of the cooks stole it. What we do know is that by 1837, very close to the monastery, the “Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém”, going strong up to today.
Belém or Nata?
Soon, lots of other places started baking the tarts and the filling, based on egg yolks, sugar and cream (‘nata’, in Portuguese), surely gave them the most common name: “Pastéis de Nata”.
Experts say that the “Nata” and “Belém” varieties are not exactly the same, and I agree. The first tends to be a little bit bigger, with a more sugary and dense filling and, sometimes, a citric aroma. The second is smaller, with a flakey and less sweet crust and a more liquid filling. I loved them both, but if you want to make up your mind, try them both. Oh, the sacrifice…
You can find egg custard tarts, or “Natas” for short, all over the country and it’s hard to taste a bad one. Nevertheless, there are some bakery renowned for their pastries. These are my favorites in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve.
If you, like all of us at Custom Portugal, are also a foodie, get in touch and let us organize a program to suit you. With egg custard tarts, of course, and many other delicious Portuguese flavors. And we also promise to show you amazing wine!