Pastel de nata 101: 4 fascinating facts about the Portuguese custard tart

December 19, 2017

Portugal, like its Spanish neighbour, is a foodie's dream destination: from spectacular seafood to crave-worthy chicken, the European country will satisfy any appetite. But ask anyone who’s been what they might recommend for dessert, and they’re likely to trip over themselves urging you to sink your teeth into a pastel de nata, Portugal’s famous custard tart. Here’s a quick primer to the sweet treat:

1. They have religious roots

Pastel de nata were invented in the 18th century, by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Santa Maria de Belem. At the time, it was common practice to use egg whites to starch nuns’ habits — which, naturally, left the monks with a ton of leftover yolks. To use them up, they began baking them into delicious, two-bite-sized custard tarts; today, Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, located not far from the monastery where the tarts were invented, claims to be the only place in Portugal serving up the original recipe (to wit: there, they're called pastéis de Belém, not pastel de nata).

2. ...and economical ones

The Jerónimos Monastery monastery in Belém may have begun making pastel de nata out of a need to make use of surplus egg yolks, but — years later — they began selling them as a means to survive. In 1820, all monasteries in Portugal were shut down as a result of the liberal revolution; in Belem, someone from the shuttered monastery began selling the tarts in 1837 at a sugar refinery next to the monastery itself. The descendants of that original merchant still operate the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém today — and keep careful guard over the tarts' original recipe.

3. They've travelled the world

While pastel de nata are native to Portugal, they can now be found globally. One notable pastel bakery is in Macau: there, Lord Stow's Bakery — opened by a British ex-pat — has been serving up pastel de nata since the late 1980s, when chemist Andrew Stow saw the opportunity to make money off a sudden influx of Portuguese migrants. Stow's tarts have a distinctly British twist: they're creamier than their Portugese cousins, which may make purists turn up their noses.

4. They're marriage material

There is an old Portugese saying that goes, "A bride who eats a pastry will never take off her ring." It is therefore common to spot newlyweds visiting Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, indulging in a sweet tart (or two) for good fortune.

Getting there

Hungry for a pastry? Check out our small group tours to Portugal here.

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