Landing in Lisbon, I decided to set myself the quest to find the perfect pastel de nata, Portuguese custard tart.
Custard tarts being made

Tart production line

The obvious first question is: “does the perfect pastel de nata exist?”

The obvious first answer is: “I’ll do the research to find out.”

Ask any Portuguese person where to find the best pasteís de nata (that’s the plural of pastel de nata), and you’ll get a variety of answers, which to me means eating a variety of different tarts.

The basic custard tart is made from puff pastry and a custard filling, and then you can sprinkle cinnamon and/or icing sugar on top. But, in my extensive research there are a number of different ways this is presented.

Some pastry is flakier than others.

Some custards are firm, some are slightly runnier.

Tarts being made at Pastéis de Belém

Pastéis de Belém production line

Some are more caramelised on top than others.

Some are served warm, while others are cooled first.

And pastelaria have their own secret custard recipes, heavily guarded.

The pastel de nata came about at the end of the 17th century when the Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém (a district of Lisbon) found a new way to used up leftover egg yolks (the whites were used to starch nun’s habits and in the production of wine). According to some historians, the monks, facing closure of the monastery after the Liberal Revolution of 1820 started selling pasteís de nata at a nearby sugar refinery.

In 1834 the monastery closed down and the monks sold the recipe to the refinery and its owners opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belem in 1837. That fábrica is still running today by the descendents of the original owners and is still as popular as ever.

So of course I had to try one of their tarts.

Front of house at Pastéis de Belém

Front of house at Pastéis de Belém

The blue shop is adorned with big awnings, but you’ll probably spot the queue out the front first. Extending well past the shop itself and down the footpath, the staff have serving down to a fine art and the queue moves fast.

It’s not just pastéis de nata on offer, the cabinets are filled with a vast array of other baked pastry goods filled with jams, creams, marmalades and plenty else. But I was here for the custard tart, and I took one to go.

Served in a paper bag with a sachet each of cinnamon and icing sugar, the tart was still warm (my preference). Sprinkled with cinnamon I bit into perfectly flaky, but not crumbly pastry and a custard that wasn’t too sweet, and was firm. As for their famous secret ingredient … I couldn’t tell.

But was it my favourite? Well, I’m not quite so sure, and should I really be picking favourites anyway?

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