Portuguese inventions are impressively eclectic. Many nod to the country’s intrepid spirit during the Age of Discovery, including nautical puzzles such as the mariner’s astrolabe and Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s rudimentary sail-propelled airship. The less scientifically-inclined will appreciate Portugal for its generous contribution to the breakfast table, in the form of marmalade, and to the drinks cabinet, with Port and Madeira. However, crowning this diverse array of offerings is, of course, Lisbon’s humble custard tart, aka the pastel de nata.
A clever, golden disk of crisp, flaky pastry filled with set custard and dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar, the pastel de nata is a perennial favourite across Portugal. It’s versatile, as ideal for breakfast as it is mid-morning, mid-afternoon or – for the devilish – as a midnight snack. It’s delicious, with most Portuguese matriarchs fiercely guarding a recipe that has been handed down through the generations. And it was invented in the capital, which means that, controversially, the best pastels de nata can be found in Lisbon.
We have the Catholic church to thank for this particular treat. The earnest residents of Jerónimos Monastery in Belém used to starch their habits with egg white. Consequently, there was a surplus of egg yolks, which the frugal monks and nuns made into pastries. When the Liberal Revolution of 1820 threatened closure of the monastery, the monks started selling their pastels de nata at Lisbon’s sugar refinery to boost their income. It kept them afloat for another 14 years, but eventually the monastery was forced to close, and the recipe was entrusted to the owners of the refinery. Entrepreneurs at heart, they had realised the little pastries brought in a lucrative trade, and Pastéis de Belém was born. Recognisable for its original blue and white azulejo tiles, it’s the oldest pastel de nata café in Lisbon, and widely touted as the best in the city.
While Pastéis de Belém’s reputation is rightly deserved, and a visit is something of a Lisbon initiation (if you can stomach the queue), it’s not the only bakery that has perfected the art. Lisbon is peppered with tiny pastel de nata cafés, each drawing on grandmother’s secret recipe. Take Nata de Lisboa, for instance. This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it niche in Baixa is dedicated entirely to the desserts, which are served warm from the oven. Do as the locals do and secure a spot at the window bar—only room enough for two—to watch the ebb and flow of Lisbon’s tides drift past.
However, the best pastel de nata bakery in Lisbon is probably Manteigaria. This lively, down-to-earth, so-called ‘custard tart factory’ is a firm local favourite, not merely for the fact that it’s located in the trendy Time Out Market. Manteigaria sets itself apart from the rest by infusing its custard with cinnamon, which removes the ‘eggy’ edge. There’s another branch further up the hill towards Bairro Alto, where a hike is rewarded by a warm pastel de nata at the bar. If that’s too busy – it often is – get a box and take a perch at a miradouro for a nata with a view.
A family break to sunny Lisbon. Make it an Easter to remember.