The History of the Pastel de Nata, Portugal's Favorite Pastry
At Manteigaria bakery in Lisbon, Portugal, while one line of eager customers stretches out the door and down the cobblestoned street, another is inside hard at work on the star of the show. Pastry chefs work furiously in unison, stirring, kneading, and flying to and from the oven at spitfire speeds. But unlike a traditional pastry shop, which peddles a wide variety of confections, Manteigaria sells just one product: the pastel de nata.
In the kingdom of Portuguese pastries, the nata is king. A little sunny orb of bright, yolky custard and pinched crust, the handheld egg tart reigns supreme at pastry shops and bakeries across Lisbon and the country as a whole. They're proudly displayed in rows that stretch across bakeshop windows, enticing hordes of locals and tourists alike, all of whom are in hot pursuit of their next nata fix.
Like many aspects of Portuguese culture, the origin of the beloved treat—which is also called pasteis de nata and pasteis de belem—lies in the Catholic church. According to Pastéis de Belém, the legendary bakery that's credited as the first to sell pasteis de nata, the pastry was first created by 18th-century monks, who were faced with a food-waste problem while doing laundry: In using egg whites to starch clothes, unused yolks piled up. Thanks to the resourceful monks at Jerónimos Monastery in Santa Maria de Belém—just west of Lisbon—the sweet yellow treat was born.
Though Pastéis de Belém, which also lays claim to being the original marketer of the famed treat and continues to keep the historical recipe under wraps, is the prefered bakery of many fans of the pastry, the more central Manteigaria is also widely considered the shop that makes the best pasteis de nata in the city, drawing major crowds to the miniscule spot.
Inside, the pastry chefs practice their craft behind transparent barriers, where customers can gape at, film and photograph the pastry-making process, mouths watering furiously all the while. The process is a fine-tuned machine: While one chef kneads the dough, another cuts the rounds to fit the baking tins and begins to shape the crust. In the next station over, one chef speedily pipes the yolky mixture into the freshly baked pastry crusts; another feeds the pastries into the oven, certain to collect them before they burn.
No matter which shop patrons swarm to, the recipe remains fairly consistent across the board. The custardy center of the pastry, reminiscent of a Hong Kong-style egg tart, is a deceptively simple combination of egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, milk and corn flour, thickened on the stove and poured into muffin-sized crusts of pastry dough before heading into the oven to achieve that signature golden-flecked skin. Though both of the famed bakeries utilize a thinner, flakier crust than many of your standard pasteis de nata, the distinction comes down to flavor: Manteigaria's custard has a richer, sweeter taste, while Belém's mix is lighter and creamier, making it easier to down two in a single sitting.
Though travelers are guaranteed to find the sunny treats in bakeries throughout the country, there is no place to try a pastel de nata like its birthplace, illustrated by the long lines of eager eaters willing to wait it out for a sweet, simple taste of Portugal's history.
Gillie Houston is Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor currently traveling the world in hunt of good stories and great tacos. Follow her culinary wanderlusting on Instagram.
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