Origin of a Classic: Pastéis de Nata

By Devra Ferst

The precious secrets of Portugal’s Pastéis de Nata.

“In Lisbon, every day has a kind of eating rhythm,” writes chef Nuno Mendes in his new book My Lisbon. “Pastéis (pastries) are taken in the morning,” and none are more beloved and iconic than the pastéis de nata, the palm-size golden tarts made from a sweet egg custard that’s cradled in a bowl of flaky pastry, caramelized on top, and often dusted in cinnamon or confectioners’ sugar. Best when served warm from the oven, the tarts almost collapse on themselves when held by their edges, the custard interior still soft and the crust delicate enough that it leaves the diner with a bib of crumbs.

Their golden orbs are spotted through the windows of bakeries and cafés, not only in Lisbon but throughout Portugal. And more than port or salted cod, these small tarts have developed their own lore and have become an obsessed-about symbol of Portugal beyond the country’s borders, from enclaves of emigrants in Rhode Island to descendants of colonists in Macau and beyond.

But there is a particular mecca for those who love these tarts. Ride a bus in downtown Lisbon and you’ll hear tourists planning their pilgrimage to Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, better known as Pastéis de Belém, the bakery that claims to be the original producer of the tarts, says Universidade de Lisboa anthropologist Miguel Moniz. It sits in Belém, an area on the southwestern edge of Lisbon, near the water. Tourists and locals line up outside the blue awning of the bustling and sprawling bakery decorated with white-and-blue tiles for small plates of tarts and uma bica, a strong cup of Portuguese coffee.

This fourth-generation family-owned bakery began selling the tarts in 1837 using a recipe that originally came from the nearby Monastery of Jerónimos. In 1820, a political revolution in Portugal sparked change, forcing monasteries throughout the country, many of which had long baking traditions, to close. In 1834, the Jerónimos monastery in Belém shut its doors. But a baker who had worked at the monastery, in an effort to survive, sold their pastéis de nata recipe. “Domingo Rafael Alves, an enterprising Portuguese from Brazil, [had] the opportunity to buy the recipe from a desperate out-of-work baker,” David Leite wrote for the L.A. Times. And three years later, Alves opened Antiga Confeitaria de Belém to sell the tarts.

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