On our trip to Portugal, the day had come for my group to try the pastéis de nata, more commonly known around the world as the Portuguese tart, at the world’s most famous nata café, Pastéis De Belém.
The monastery connection
It was a beautiful Lisbon morning as we arrived at the Mosteiro de Jeronimous, Hieronymites Monastery, in the area of Belem. The white stone of Manueline design was set distinctly against the blue sky. Behind us the sun sparkled on the river Tajo. Inside the monastery our local guide showed us the all-important tombs of Vasco De Gama, the first European to reach India in the 15th Century, and the great chronicler and poet of that time Albert Camoes.
We explored the adjacent cloisters and it was here we learnt about the origins of the tart. Our local guide, whose name fittingly was Dulce, told us that the monks would bleach their robes using egg whites, but the remainder of the egg was used to create the tart, with a secret recipe. That ancient formula is today known only by a few pâtissiers, and they all work at the Pastéis De Belém next door.
The tasting of the Portuguese tarts
The café, traditional in azulejo décor; the blue and white Portuguese tiling, has been in existence since 1837. Walking to our tables we caught a glimpse of the pâtissiers at work through the (impenetrable) glass window. Once seated the waiters brought the tarts, piled in pyramid formation on the serving plates, a formation that wasn’t to last long.
Like a hunter observing its prey, eyes focused on the pastéis as they were placed on the tables. With next to no hesitation hands reached immediately for the tarts and then rapidly towards to the mouth. Upper teeth bit into the still-warm soft custard on top, liberally applied with cinnamon and icing sugar, while simultaneously lower teeth crunched through the crisp fresh pastry on the underside. Any subtle signs of enjoyment; calm chewing followed by nods of appreciation, were visibly absent. Instead, ‘umm’ sounds of ecstasy were heard across the café, coupled with custard oozing down people’s faces. It was a kind of sugar-induced Triumph of Bacchus, or perhaps, Triumph of Bakers. And triumphant these bakers are, witnessing through their window the same reaction 20,000 times a day with each tart sold.
So what makes the tart so special?
Clearly they taste good, but eating them and knowing it’s the original pastéis de nata enhances the experience. When you eat a tart from Belem you are tasting an icon. It’s also quintessentially Portuguese. You are tasting a country. And the locals love the pastéis de nata as much as any visitor. So there’s the fulfilment of many a traveller’s wish, and that is to do what the locals do.
To have these elements: taste, tradition and the traveller-as-local experiences, this little tart is a reminder of some of the major reasons for why we travel.