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The history of pastel de nata and where to eat the best Portuguese custard tarts in Lisbon

Most travelers who have a keen interest in food and who visit Lisbon these days, make it a point to try the uber popular Portuguese custard tarts. Being at the origin of Asian egg tarts (蛋挞) pastel de nata from Portugal is a pastry that, in the last decade or so, has become rather ubiquitous in many cities around the word and that, here in Portugal, can be found virtually in any café or pastry shop (pastelaria).

But how did pastéis de nata (plural of pastel de nata) come about and how did they rise to fame?

The origins of pastel de nata

Most tourists and even Lisbon locals relate the origins of pastel de nata with the founding of the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, also simply known as Pastéis de Belém (see our recommendations below), a pastry shop which opened its doors in 1837 and that, since then, has been coined with inventing the recipe we all know and love today.

But the truth is that the origins of Portuguese custard tarts can be traced much before that time, namely as far back as 16h century. Like most Portuguese traditional recipes of sweets, these custard delicacies would have had their origins inside a religious institution, thus being a part of the so-called repertoire of Portuguese conventual sweets. In the convent of Santa Catarina de Sena, in the city of Évora, in the Alentejo, nuns were already back then preparing a very similar pastry. It consisted of puff pastry with a filling of cream, sugar and egg yolks. At around the same time, a remarkably similar preparation was also being crafted at the monastery of Arouca.

It is believed that these recipes from the Alentejo made their way into Lisbon, namely via nuns and monks, such as those inhabiting the Jerónimos Monastery, in the neighborhood of Belém, which is often thought to be at the origin of the recipe which was later sold to a nearby business, which is known today as Pastéis de Belém. It’s hard to trace the exact origins of this pastry which has become synonymous with Portuguese gastronomy a little over the world, but one thing is for sure, and that is that Portugal adores custard in all its shapes and forms and, much before today’s recipe of pastel de nata, we were already preparing similar products, even if it wasn’t always involving puff pastry.

Even though it might not be fair to give all the credit to the monks of Jerónimos Monastery, nor the bakers at Pastéis de Belém, we do have to recognize that it was thanks to this establishment that these delicate pastries eventually became popular amongst the masses. After all, who could resist a perfectly flaky crust, which slightly crumbles as you bite into it, giving way for a velvety custard which is smooth yet not too runny? Sprinkled with cinnamon and/or powdered sugar to taste, pastéis de nata are definitely one of Portugal's favorite treats.