The custard tart (pastel de nata) is to Portugal what haggis is to Scotland and hangi is to New Zealand; both a national dish and a tourist delicacy. As a woman with an uncommonly-large sweet tooth, I made it my business to fully explore the charms of the Lisbonese egg custard tart.
Sorry to say, but the first tart off the block was purchased at the local Minipreco, i.e. supermarket. However it was our first day in Lisbon and we’d been up since four in the morning. Sourcing the best-possible local pastelaria was beyond our capabilities; we could barely recognise UHT milk on the shelves and figuring out whether pumpkin jam is savoury or sweet was a significant linguistic challenge.
Tart #1 – Minipreco tart
Actually, not too bad. That’s the Kiwi double-negative way of saying it tasted pretty darn good. The custard was slightly too firm and a little heavy on the sugar, but the pastry was delicate and flaky – almost filo-like.
Tart #2 – Castelo de Sao Jorge tart
This was a spur-of-the-moment tart purchased after we’d dragged our butts up and down the cobbled streets of Alfama in 33 degree heat. We needed water badly, and we also needed energy food. I can’t recall the name of this particular pastelaria, but the tart was excellent. Less sweet that the supermarket example and well-received by an exhausted body that has just completed the tourist version of a military assault course. Can’t show you a pic of this tart; it was consumed on the hoof. All evidence has been eaten.
Tart #3 – Pastelaria Santo Antonio
This was a considered purchase of a box of four tarts. Why? Because I liked their tagline: “Eat custard tart and ask Saint Antonio for a miracle”. For just 3.5 Euro, I had the potential for four miracles.
Back at our little hacienda in Rua Pedro Dias (which translates to something like Pedro Has a Great Day Street), I split the first tart with Murray and ordered up a miracle. The tart was extraordinary, with the perfect balance of sweetness, flakiness and brulee-caramel scorchiness. If the Kiwi dollar rises by 50%, to make our travel budget go further, Saint Antonio will have delivered. It’s a good feeling to know I have three more miracles waiting in the fridge.
Tart #4 – Belem tart
If you search on ‘best custard tart in Lisbon’ you’ll get a result that points overwhelmingly to Pasteis de Belem, a pastry shop down the river from Lisbon’s CBD. In the interests of robust research, I decided to test-drive a tart from this illustrious baked-goods emporium. Pastry aside, Belem is a magnificent source of museums, so this custard tart chase would come with intellectual benefits.
However this sample was not to be, because it would have involved a long queue in the hot sun. I only queue for life or death situations, not pastries. We took pictures of the queue and resolved to check it out again later, after visiting the Museu de Marinha – a museum dedicated to Portugal’s passion for sea-borne exploration. Numerous navigators, caravelles, galleons and royal barges later, the tart queue was twice as long. So we did what all losers do and went over the road to purchase a tart from the opposition, where there was no queue at all. It was a decent tart, though not as good as the tarts of Santo Antonio (refer to #3 tart above).
On the walk back to the train station, I experienced pangs of jealousy as the smug owners of fancy tarts from Pasteis de Belem went by, swinging their designer tart bags. Maybe it’s time I learned to queue.
A brief history of the Portuguese custard tart
The pastel de nata was invented around 200 years ago by the Catholic nuns of Jeronimos Monastery in Belem. Whether they came up with the recipe because they needed a treat or simply because the monastery hens had been laying especially well, I can’t say. However their creation is both heavenly and divine, as you’d expect from a religious test kitchen.