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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.


It was thanks to the liberal revolution which took place in Portugal in 1820 that the general population would have access to these baked goods. Following new laws, most of Portugal’s religious institutions were closed and this is when the monks of Jerónimos Monastery sold their recipe of pastel de nata, in order to raise some funds which would help them make a living outside of the monastery. This is when the pastry shop in Belém started selling these pastries, which until today are called ​​pastéis de Belém (literally Belém pastries) only in this one shop, which has a trademark. The recipe was eventually replicated by other bakers and chefs, and started becoming more popular all over Lisbon and, later on, a little all over Portugal. But, everywhere else, the same pastries would be called pastéis de nata, that is, cream pastries in Portuguese. Curiously, there’s no cream as such in the traditional recipe of pastel de nata, which is something we teach you during our Pastel de Nata Pastry Class at Cooking Lisbon!


The popularization and internationalization of Portuguese custard tarts


Until some years ago, you would have to travel to Belém to eat warm out of the oven natas. Now-a-days, Lisbon is populated with specialty pastry stores, which keep baking these tarts all day long, for locals and visitors to enjoy at the peak of their freshness.


In fact, while we could argue that the best custard tarts are still those produced not just in Portugal but specifically in Lisbon, you wouldn’t even have to travel to Portugal these days to try a rather authentic pastel de nata.



In New York City, for example, Joey Bats (pictured here) makes very good use of his Portuguese ancestry to promote Portugal’s favorite tart, while Michelin starred chef George Mendes, also with Portuguese family background, also contributes to the popularization of pastel de nata presenting his elevated version. Specific businesses aside, you know pastel de nata has achieved the status it (arguably) deserves, when Portuguese custard tarts are being featured alongside muffins and other internationally known sweet treats at businesses such as Starbucks! This is even more clear when the pastry is being referred to as pastel de nata more and more, and less and less as Portuguese custard tart - after all, we wouldn’t attempt to translate the names of other famous pastries such as croissants, would we?


On the opposite side of the world, in Asia, the adapted egg tarts (sometimes known as Hong Kong egg tarts) and which are a regular part of a Chinese dim sum menu (often featuring local flavors such as pandan, ube, matcha and others), are in more recent years also giving way to flaky custard tarts (sometimes locally referred to as Macau egg tarts, being that Macau is a former Portuguese colony), which can cohabit with those more popular around Asia, and which usually feature a much thicker shortcrust style of pastry wrapped around a firmer custard, which wouldn’t usually include the characteristic char we have come to associate with the top creamy layer of a Portuguese tart.


A little all over the world, you’ll find more or less authentic versions of pastéis de nata but, when you come to Lisbon, it’s part of your job as a visitor to explore the many sweet offerings available in our city so that, by the end of your trip, you’ll finally able to join the long-lasting debate amongst us locals: so, where do you get the best pastel de nata in Lisbon after all?


In no particular order, here’s our top 10 of best places to try Portuguese custard tarts in Lisbon:


1. Pastéis de Belém

Some locals would argue that, even though this is supposedly the birthplace of pastéis de nata (at least as we know them today), that doesn’t mean they make the best. Other folks would argue that, of course, following the ancient authentic recipe, there’s no custard tarts like those found in Belém. We think that, whether you like these the best or not, trying the original ​​Pastéis de Belém is indeed an experience worth having, if nothing else, so that you can compare them with the other pastries being baked in many places all around town today. Crunchier pastry than most and a recipe which only three people alive know (and they never travel together!), Pastéis de Belém could almost be considered the Portuguese Coca Cola!


📍Rua de Belém 84 92, 1300-085 Lisbon



2. Confeitaria Nacional


Talking about historical pastry shops in Lisbon, means speaking about Confeitaria Nacional. Open since 1829, this business is related with the royal family of Portugal, which ruled the country until 1910. Not only did the royals order their baked goods from this iconic pastelaria in downtown Lisbon, until today, they’ve made it a point to keep offering excellent quality. Come here for a perfectly crafted pastel de nata (and, if you happen to visit around Christmas time, also don't miss the bolo rei, a typical cake from this time of the year!), to be leisurely enjoyed while sipping a hot beverage in a charming, elegant and exquisite team room.


📍Praça da Figueira 18B, 1100-241 Lisbon



3. Manteigaria


Historial bakeries aside, Manteigaria is one of the most popular places to try pastel de nata in Lisbon today. With shops in some of the most strategic places around town (as well as in the city of Porto), Manteigaria specializes in pastel de nata and so they have indeed managed to perfect their craft. Their pastries have some of the best puff pastry you’ll get to taste in Lisbon, because following their name (which translates from Portuguese as butter store), they use butter to make their laminated dough, instead of the most common vegetable margarine, which most Portuguese bakers do indeed work with. The filling of their natas is also the right amount of sweet and they are baked all day long. As such, they’re very hard to resist, even more so while you get to see how they are being prepared, in a kitchen just separated by a clear glass from the area where you get to eat. We dare you to try and eat just one!

📍Several locations, including inside Time Out Market: Av. 24 de Julho 49, 1200-479 Lisbon



4. Pastelaria Santo António


Almost every year, Lisbon holds a competition where a team of gastronomes, food writers and chefs scrutinizes and votes for the best pastel de nata in the great Lisbon area. Back in 2019, Pastelaria Santo António, a small pastry shop on a hill going towards Lisbon’s St. Jorge’s castle was highlighted as having the very best pastel de nata in town. As you can imagine, there is tough competition, as not only there are a lot of bakeries making pastel de nata, but it’s also the type of recipe Portuguese people have incredibly high standards for. Ever since then, Pastelaria Santo António’s fame shot up, but their quality and customer service still remain second to none. If the seven hills of Lisbon are draining your energy and you need a little pick-me-up to make it up to the castle, now you know where to recharge your batteries!

📍Rua do Milagre de Santo António 10, 1100-351 Lisbon



5. Fábrica da Nata


If you’d first like to take a sneak peek into how pastéis de nata are made, and later on dig in when they come right out of the oven, Fábrica da Nata is a great place to do so. This is also not a place to grab your pastries for take away. Of course, you could do that, but you’d be missing out on the ambiance that makes Fábrica da Nata (which literally translates as pastel de nata factory) such an inviting spot to lounge around. Besides natas they also serve some simple savory options, so you could potentially visit for a light meal and end in style with Lisbon’s most delicious sweet treat!


📍Praça dos Restauradores 62 -68, 1250-110 Lisbon



6. Aloma


If you are a Lisbon resident, particularly if you live in the neighborhood of Campo de Ourique, Aloma needs no introduction. The brand has several pastry shops around the city and has got us locals used to a beautiful array of savory and sweet treats which, as anyone would expect, include an incredible pastel de nata. The same award which was granted to Pastelaria Santo António in 2019 has been won by Aloma on several occasions, namely in 2012, 2013 and 2015. The brand was established in 1943 and we have a feeling that it is going to be around for many more years to come!


📍Locations in Campo Ourique, Calhariz, Jardim Constantino, Amoreiras and El Corte Inglés



7. Pastelaria Versailles


Versailles is such a classic of Lisbon’s pastry shop scene that this store is even protected by the municipal program Lojas com História, which aims at highlighting and preserving business which have contributed to Lisbon’s economy and identity over the years. Open since 1922, Versailles was once upon a time the meeting place of the intellectual elite and, as times kept changing, it is now a favorite of many individuals and families looking to indulge in a sweet treat. If around Christmas time Pastelaria Versailles is particularly popular because of their seasonal desserts, all year long it is worth visiting for a cup of coffee, a brilliant pastel de nata, and for elegant vibes which, with a little imagination, have the potential to make us feel like we’re almost traveling back in time.

📍Av. da República 15 A, 1050-185 Lisbon



8. Castro - Atelier de Pastéis de Nata


Castro is a brand which was born in Porto and later exported to Lisbon. Even though this happened as recently as 2021, thanks to its high quality pastel de nata and its strategic location in Rua Garrett, in the heart of the central Chiado district of Lisbon, Castro has already managed to carve an impressive reputation for itself. Over here you can order one thing, and one thing only, pastel de nata, which the brand suggests either pairing with a cup of coffee or a glass of Port wine. One of the peculiarities of Castro’s pastries is that the custard is prepared in advance. Their pastry chefs believe that allowing the pastel de nata filling to rest for 24 hours, will enhance its flavor. Well, there’s only one way to find out if that is true…


📍Rua Garrett 38, 1200-204 Lisbon



9. Alcôa


If you’re curious to explore the seemingly ever-ending world of Portuguese conventual sweets, Alcôa is definitely the place to go in Lisbon! This traditional pastry store, which happens to be right across the street from Castro mentioned above, originated in the city of Alcobaça and later opened its doors in downtown Lisbon. Alcôa are masters of all things conventual sweets, with tremendous use of sugar and egg yolks. That, of course, includes pastel de nata, which is often disregarded as a conventual sweet thanks to its prevalence in most shops (to the contrary of most conventual desserts), but which happens to actually be the most famous of them all! At Alcôa all sweets are impeccable, and the ​​pastéis de nata could be no exception.

📍Rua Garrett 37, 1200-203 Lisbon



10. Cooking Lisbon


Last but not least, we firmly believe that YOU can make one of the best Portuguese custard tarts in Lisbon! How? With a little support and guidance from our team here at Cooking Lisbon. Most participants in our Pastel de Nata Experience are in awe of how good their baked goods are after just a two hour class. We share with you the traditional recipe of Portuguese custard tarts, which involves fairly straightforward ingredients, so that you can replicate it at home when you’re missing Portugal.


📍Rua Bernardim Ribeiro 9, 1150-068 Lisbon


BONUS:

11. For vegans: Vegannata


If there was any doubt that the times are changing, even when it comes to some of the most classic Portuguese recipes, now-a-days you can also find vegan versions of pastel de nata in Lisbon. In fact, there’s an entire pastry shop dedicated to the veganized version of these custard tarts and it’s rather remarkable how they have managed to reproduce a very similar taste and texture, not using any dairy milk, eggs or butter. If you’re following a plant-based diet, or you’re simply allergic to eggs or dairy, that doesn’t mean you should leave Lisbon without trying out the most iconic cake!


📍Rua 4 de Infantaria 29 B, 1350-268 Lisbon



12. For gluten-free: Zarzuela


If, besides excluding ingredients of animal origin in your diet, you are also gluten-free, you can still eat pastel de nata white in Lisbon! Zarzuela is a gluten free bakery, certified by the APC, which is the Portuguese Association for Celiacs. Zarzuela’s range of products is entirely gluten free and they have vegan as well as dairy-free options. Their pastel de nata happens to be all of the above, so that everyone can join in the fun!


📍Rua Bernardino Costa 21 23, 1200-052 Lisbon


We have a feeling you may be craving a pastel de nata right now… We hope you get to visit us in Lisbon soon and that you get to eat as many Portuguese custard tarts as you wish, and also learn how to bake your own with us here at Cooking Lisbon! Until then, keep in touch with us via Instagram and feel free to ask us questions and foodie tips for your Portuguese trip! #cookinglisbon

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COOKING LISBON

Cooking Lisbon

Rua Bernardim Ribeiro, 9

​1150-068 Lisboa, Portugal

(+351) 916 047 883

info@cookinglisbon.com

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