Europe & Britain | Food

Meet the Pastel de Nata (Portugal's custard tarts)

Recently updated on August 13th, 2023 at 09:24 am

If you’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Portugal, just the thought of a Pastel de Nata will be enough to make you feel nostalgic. This foodie centric country isn’t short of sweet treats, and in popular cities such as Lisbon or Porto, you’re never far from a bakery selling all manner of sugary temptations.

But nothing can quite beat the Pastel de Nata. Crispy pastry forms a case for the soft, sweet, custardy filling, with often a hint of cinnamon coming through. Each region and each baker will have a slightly different twist on the recipe, but for the most part you can expect a mouthful of flaky pastry, complimented with a hit of custardy, sugary deliciousness.

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Pastel de Natas are sold all across Portugal (and the world for that matter), but for the original recipe, you have to head to Belém, the place where it all began.

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The history of the Pastel de Nata

The Pastel de Nata’s history dates back over 300 years, to Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, west of Lisbon. Today the monastery is a major tourist hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but at the time it was a busy civil parish where, in the absence of laundry detergent, nuns and monks would use egg whites to starch their clothes. This process meant there were lots of egg yolks going spare, so to avoid these going to waste, they were instead used as a major ingredient in desserts.

The monks of the monastery soon created a secret recipe to perfect their custard tarts, which they began selling as a means of creating income to support the monastery. When the monastery closed in 1834, this recipe was then sold to the owners of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, which opened in 1837, and is the most famous place to try custard tarts in all of Lisbon. Today, the recipe is still a closely guarded secret, and the tarts sold in this location are known as Pastéis de Belém. Just a three minute walk from the monastery, they’re a must try for anyone keen for a little bite of Portuguese history.

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The taste of a Pastel de Nata

A cross between a custard tart and a cake, the Pastel de Nata is small whilst packing a sugary punch. The outside of the art is made from crispy, flaky pastry, whilst the inside is a creamy, custardy mix. Once baked, the tart is caramelised on top and ready to eat. Our advice is to eat them fresh from the oven, or at least the same day you bought them on, dusted in cinnamon or icing sugar. Saving them as a gift for someone else, or to eat the following day could result in the pastry going soggy. They’re best enjoyed with an espresso or cappuccino, with many locals using their coffee spoon to scoop out the custard inside.

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Where to try a Pastel de Nata in Lisbon

Of course a Pastéis de Belém from the birth place of the Pastel de Nata is mandatory, but elsewhere in Lisbon you can find equally delicious versions of this sweet treat. Here’s where to head:

  • O Mercado do Peixe, located in the Ajuda neighbourhood. Despite the name of this no frills restaurant translating to ‘the fish market’, this place scooped the award in 2018 for being Lisbon’s best Pastel de Nata.
  • Pastelaria Aloma, a small neighbourhood style café, serves up its tarts with a side of artisanal flare. The Pastel de Natas here have regularly come out top in blind tastings, so you know they’re good.
  • Pastelaria Versailles dates back to the 1920’s and is all about old school glam. All marble, mirrors and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, the tarts here do not disappoint.

Have you tried a Pastel de Nata? Where would you recommend trying one of these Portuguese icons for the first time?

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