In case you’ve never heard of them, pastéis de nata (or Pastel de Nata, if you are referring to just one) according to Wikipedia are small creamy egg based custard tarts that can be found in cafés all over Portugal.
Pasteis de Nata are one of the most widespread icons of the Portuguese cuisine and the most famous and emblematic pastry of Portugal … an authentic king or holy grain of Portuguese sweets. Well appreciated in Portugal, the Pasteis de Nata popularity around the world is huge and has a large number of aficionados, including Queen Elizabeth II. For that reason, they are often mentioned as being part of the country’s culinary landscape and cultural identity, a true “cartao de visita” of Portugal, one of its best ambassadors and one of Portugal ‘s great culinary gifts to the world.
Today in Lisbon, and a little bit all over Portugal, it seems there’s a pastelaria (cake shop) on every block, sometimes two or three serving a diversified array of sugary treats besides these rich custardy cakes … some even have celestial names such as papos de anjo (angel’s breasts) and toucinho do ceu (bacon from heaven)—the last also made in Spain where it’s known as tocino de cielo.
But none beats the fame achieved by Pasteis de Nata. It is believed that they were created before the 18th century. Since then, and for the past two centuries, Pasteis de Nata recipe has been replicated every night by tens of bakeries allowing it to become popularly adopted and appreciated. Today, this pastry can be found and tasted pretty much at any pastelaria (cake shop), padaria (bakery) or café everywhere throughout the country. It is difficult to find one that does not sell them.
According to Fabrico Proprio, over the years this national pastry has been gaining new interpretations and varieties in terms of redesign, such as: Natao (extra tall), Bom Bocado (“good bite” – which has a different shell), Alsaciano (same shell than a Pastel de Nata but a Bom Bocado filling and a crystalized cherry inside) and Miniatura (one-bite miniature version).
Then, there are the ones produced at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, which due to a trademark obtained in 1837, are the only ones that can be called “Pasteis de Belem”. For that reason there is no other place in Portugal – or the world – where you can buy Pasteis de Belem. All the others, even if made in Belem, need to be called Pasteis de Nata.
The story of Pasteis de Belem has been told over and over by the international media that brings tourists to the Belem area by helping the promotion of the place and of this specialty.
One thing is true … eating a pastel de nata is an experience that can only be tasted to understand. It’s a true delicious revelation at the first bite! And, while doing so, it also allows one to savor a little of history.
The tasty, soft, full-body, luscious and velvety creamy egg yolk based custard filling on the inside combines perfectly with the buttery plate brisée shell, light, crispy, flaky pastry crusts cups made from massa folhada (Portuguese version of France’s puff pastry). Massa folhada tastes like a pliable pie crust on the outside. Sprinkled with a little cinnamon and powdered sugar, the tops gently browned by the oven presents burned brown spots in patches that add an extra dimension to the flavor.
Over the years this pastry has been receiving lots of praise, including:
In February 1976 the New York Times gourmet cook was in search of rarities. Plus in 1982, the same publication ran an article that talked about exploring the cultural pleasures of Newark where the Nata de Belem was mentioned. They were also mentioned in other articles published in 1995, 2002 , 2003, 2009 and 2010.
In July 2005, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem received the Gold Merit Medal of Lisbon from the then Mayor Pedro Santana Lopes for the services provided to the city
On May 9, 2006, the Café Europe, a cultural initiative of the Austrian presidency of the European Union, celebrated Europe Day and distributed typical European sweets and cakes at local cafes from each member state. The famous Pasteis de Nata at Café Martinho da Arcada were the specialty chosen to represent the country.
On April 2, 2009, confrades of Confraria do Pastel de nata, winemaker Domingos Soares Branco, Portuguese chef Vitor Sobral and the 2004 James Beard Award winner of the Best New York Chef, David Pasternack, comprised the jury that, at the Pavilhão de Portugal in Parque das Nacoes in Lisbon, got together for the first time to select the Best Pastel de Nata of Lisbon according six criterion: aspect (looking), freshness, crust quality (touching), sugar quantities, baking, and flavor. The winner was Pastelaria Cristal in Lapa, Lisbon (1st place), followed by Pastelaria Chique de Belém (2º) and Hotel Ritz (3º). According to its owner, Herculano Marques, during that week his pastry shop sold an average of 150 units a day but on weekends that number increases to 500 a day and can be well paired with a dry wine, a muscatel, a Madeira wine or a ruby port as long as you don’t eat it with a Coca-Cola. But the regular combination is made of Nata and an Portuguese expresso.
On September 2009, Killian Fox, published an article after roaming the globe with the help of world top cuisine professionals and experts such Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray in search of the 50 best things to eat in the world, and the best places to eat them in. The Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, Lisbon ranked # 15th on their list as the best place to eat.
In 2010, the first prize went to Pastelaria Suiça (1º), Casinha do Pão (2º) and Hotel Altis (3º).
In 2010, the Portuguese newspaper, Diario de Noticias, in commemoration of the 1000th edition of its Sunday Magazine, put together a list of the one thousand motives to feel proud of and of things that are of cultural worth. The Pastel de Nata received an honorable 77th position (but behind of Ovos Moles de Aveiro, Cavacas, Travesseiros da Piriquita).
In the 2011 edition of the Chocolate Festival in Obidos that took place during the month of March, there were even Pasteis de Nata topped with chocolate.
During the 2011 edition of the Fish and Flavors Festival, that took place in April at Pátio da Galé in Lisbon, the pasteis de nata from “A Chique de Belém” were elected as the best ones. In the 3rd edition of “O Melhor Pastel de Nata” contest, the jury composed of food expert Virgílio Gomes, wine maker Domingos Soares Franco, sommelier Manuel Moreira, culinary chef André Magalhães and Rita Cupido from Edições do Gosto) selected “A Chique de Belém” during the 2011 edition of Peixe em Lisboa festival. Besides the winner, the list of the 11 participants included: pastelarias Cristal (2nd place and 2009 winner), Pastelaria Alcoa (3rd place) plus Estabelecimento Prisional do Linhó, Hotel Palácio (Estoril), Hotel Altis (Lisboa), Hotel Ritz (Lisboa), Pastelaria Aloma(Lisboa), pastelaria Gregório (Sintra), pastelaria Versalhes (Lisboa), pastelaria Sacolinha (Cascais), restaurante Martinho da Arcada (Lisboa), Casinha do Pão, Pastelaria Suiça, Restaurante Casa da Comidae and Restaurante Mercado do Peixe (Lisboa). Curiously, the owners of Pasteis de Belem didn’t submit their pastry to be evaluated.
In July 2011 a tasting organized by Pastelaria Aloma, one of the oldest traditional bakeries in Lisbon, located at Campo de Ourique, took place at Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo de Lisboa where a jury of 24 people (food & wine journalists, sommeliers, chefs and restaurant owners) selected among 20 different options (from where the Porto Vintage and Carcavelos were not included since apparently they do not combine well with eggs), the best fortified wines that would pair well with their Pastel de Natal. From the Fortified Wine of Pico (Vinho licoroso) to Port Wines, Setubal Wines, Abafado and Licoroso do Alentejo … the winners chosen were: Abafado Quinta da Alorna 5 Years and Moscatel de Setubal Bacalhoa Moscatel Roxo 2000 (1st place); Madeira Justino’s Colheita 99 and Porto Dalva Colheira 95 (2nd place) and Porto Andersen Branco 10 Anos (3rd place). This only proves that the majority of the Portuguese fortified wines pair well with a Pastel de Nata.
In August 2011, Lonely Planet published an article called “How sweet it is: destinations and their desserts” where Pastel de Nata was listed as one of the culinary indulgences and the famous signature dessert of Lisbon that offers a little bit of history in every bite. In November, that same article got published by BBC Travel.
In September 20, 2011, the Pastel de Belem was nominated as being one of the seven culinary wonders of Portugal (“7 maravilhas da gastronomia portuguesa”) in a contest that had 70 initial traditional Portuguese dishes in seven categories (entrees, soup, seafood, fish, game, meat and sweets) representing ten regions. This particular candidate was criticized because it is a commercial brand and not a sweet that can be made in different places in Portugal.