Most accept this story, perhaps downing it with one more pastel, but Janet Boileau, who wrote a dissertation on Portuguese culinary history, explains that the story is likely more complex. “[The story of the monastery and Antiga Confeitaria] is the popular origin myth and I think it’s based in fact, but it’s been oversimplified.” Egg sweets in Portugal date back to the late Middle Ages. Monasteries guarded their recipes from the public—as they were sources of income—but they also shared them with other religious communities. “I think it was highly unlikely that [the bakers in Belém] were the only ones with the recipe,” she adds.
Still, the lore has grown over the 181 years since the bakery opened. The recipe Alves purchased remains a secret, guarded behind a locked door at the bakery with a sign that reads oficina do segredo, or the secret office, in blue calligraphy. Only six people, three descendants of Alves and three bakers who have reportedly signed nondisclosure agreements, are allowed behind the door. Here, they follow the original recipe and start the process for baking all of the shop’s tarts, some 20,000 on a typical day. To protect their place in confectionary history, the family registered the name pastéis de Belém, in something akin to a DOP designation like Parmigiano-Reggiano, in 1911.
Today, the tarts are known as pastéis de nata when made elsewhere. And like the Portuguese explorers, these tarts traveled—most notably 7,000 miles to Macau, where a slightly less sweet variation of the tart took hold. People trace the tarts in Macau to 1989 when a British man named Lord Andrew Stow opened an eponymous bakery. But with a Portuguese presence in Macau dating back to the 16th century, it’s improbable that Stow was the first to make the tart there, Boileau argues. An earlier arrival might also explain dan tat, a sweeter cousin of pastéis de nata with a firmer (and never caramelized) custard filling, a staple of the dim sum scene in Hong Kong, just 40 nautical miles away.
In North America, it’s unclear if the pastry jumped to this side of the Atlantic via Lisbon or the Azores, where many Portuguese Americans trace their roots. But bakeries like Teixeira’s Bakery in Newark, New Jersey; George Mendes’s restaurant Aldea in New York City; and The Bakery at Fat Rice, a Macanese restaurant in Chicago, draw legions of fans for the tarts that fit perfectly onto Instagram.
It’s not just the tarts’ appearance or their luscious decadence that enchants fans, though. Legends invite intrigue. From closely guarded recipes to uncertain migration routes, the secrets of pastéis de nata remain tightly wrapped between its layers of flaky pastry.