THESE FAMOUS CUSTARD TARTLETS HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE HEARTS OF THE PORTUGUESE
When you think of Portuguese pastries, the first thing that most likely comes to mind is Pastel de Nata or Pastéis de Belém. These famous custard tartlets, which have a special place in the hearts of the Portuguese, look a bit like little nests, with a thick layer of puff pastry on the outside, and a caramelized top that hides a creamy filling underneath. They taste good at any time of the day, but absolutely delicious with a cup of Galão, the typical coffee of Portugal, a kind of latte macchiato.
The invention of these small delicacies goes back well before the 18th century and is attributed to the monks of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in the parish of Santa Maria of Belém, a district in the west of Lisbon. Since the monks used large amounts of egg white to strengthen their religious clothing at that time, there were also large amounts of egg yolk left over. In order not to waste them, they began to use them for newly created cakes, sweets and pastries. Many new recipes from this time were created, and their popularity moved into French cuisine as known today.
The liberal revolution of 1820 inevitably led to the slow extinction of religious orders and the imminent closure of many monasteries because they were no longer financially supported. As a result, a resourceful monk decided to create a new recipe and sell the tarts to the nearby sugar factory in order to cope with the monastery’s financial hardship. Despite all efforts, the monastery was closed in 1834 and the original recipe was sold to a Portuguese businessman named Domingos Rafael Alves in 1837.
Knowing about the importance of his acquisition, he founded the pastry shop Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém, in the district of Santa Maria de Belém. It still exists today, right next to the monastery, and still making Natas according to the original recipe. The recipe is a closely guarded secret that few know, and only the tarts from this pastry shop are allowed to be called “Pastéis de Belém”.
All other pastry shops, cafés and restaurants that serve these delicacies have to name them Pastéis de Nata. The tartlet soon traveled around the world via the Portuguese colonies and enjoyed great popularity. In Macau in particular, it met the taste of the population and established itself in a very short time. After Macau’s integration into China, it also found a permanent place in the local kitchen, where it is called “Dan Ta” and is often served with afternoon tea.
In 2011, Pastéis de Belém participated in the election of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy, in which a total of 70 specialties from the country were presented. The general population was asked to vote on which delicacies, which had to be more than 70 years old, are traditionally and historically anchored and consisted or manufactured exclusively of national products are included in the list. The tartlet won one of the 21 coveted places and have been one of the country’s excellent national treasures ever since.
This article was first published in Issue 16