Whilst in the UK we have traditional desserts and treats such as Spotted Dick, Flies’ Graveyards and Fat Rascals, in Portugal one of the most celebrated treats is the Pastel de Nata, also known originally as the Pastel de Belém.
A Pastel de Nata is a small, egg-custard tart with flaky pastry, best eaten fresh out the oven and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Although the pastries are now sold in just about every café in Portugal, they originated in Belém centuries ago and were enjoyed exclusively by monks.
Portugal used to be one of the biggest egg producers in Europe and, at the time, most of the excess egg yokes were thrown out or given to animals to eat. Then, during the Age of Discovery, Portugal vastly expanded its empire and began importing large amounts of sugar from its colonies.
At the time, monasteries and convents would use copious amounts of egg-whites to starch their religious habits and, with the now enormous amounts of sugar reaching the Portuguese shores, they started using the left-over yokes to bake all sorts of pastries and desserts.
That is why Portugal has a grand tradition of conventual sweets, which were all originally made by nuns and monks. Each region of Portugal boasts its own traditional treat and Belém in particular is famed for the Pastel de Belém, made by the monks who used to live at the Jerónimos Monastery.
The reason the pastry spread throughout the whole of Portugal begins at the start of the 19th century when the Portuguese royal family and their entire court fled to Brazil a few days before the Napoleonic forces invaded Lisbon due to Portugal’s alliance with Great Britain. The royal family stayed in Brazil for a little over a decade until they were forced to return to Portugal in 1821 after the Liberal revolution.
During that time, Rio de Janeiro served as the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, and Portugal itself was ruled more as a colony. This caused a severe political crisis and forced the king, D. João VI, to return in order to retain his Portuguese throne. The prince, D. Pedro, on the other hand, refused to leave and became the first emperor of Brazil after declaring Brazil’s independence the following year.
In 1826, the reigning king D. João VI died, just five years after returning to Portugal, which created a dispute over the royal succession. D. Pedro, the new emperor of Brazil, was the oldest son but his younger brother, D. Miguel, contended that he had abdicated his right to the throne by declaring Brazil’s independence. Neither Brazil nor Portugal wanted to unify, so D. Pedro decided to crown his daughter, Maria (who was seven at the time), the ruler of Portugal instead.
This led to a civil war that lasted six years, where the crown exchanged hands several times. In the end, D. Miguel was stripped of the throne and lived the remainder of his life in exile. Maria once again was proclaimed Queen of Portugal, and D. Pedro regent. The point of this story is, once the civil war ended, D. Pedro’s first act was to confiscate the property of all of those who had supported D. Miguel, including all religious properties.
The dissolution of the monasteries of Portugal thus took part in 1834 and all masculine religious orders were closed and the lands they occupied nationalised. The Jerónimos monks had already started selling their pastries at a nearby sugar refinery to help sustain the monastery, but, once the monastery was definitively closed in 1834, they sold their recipe to the owner of the refinery.
In 1837, the Pastéis de Belém bakery officially opened, right next to the monastery where it still remains today. Each pastry costs 1.15€ and they have a counter where you can quickly pick them up to take away or you can sit inside one of their many rooms decorated with traditional blue and white pictured tiles.
The original recipe is still used to this day and is kept locked away in a secret room only accessible to a handful of people. Only the pastries sold at the original bakery in Belém boast the name of Pastéis de Belém, the rest are known as Pastéis de Nata, which you can find just about everywhere.
But, for me, one of the best Pastéis de Nata (if not the best) can be found at the Manteigaria, which is dedicated solely to the pastry and is situated in Bairro Alto, the heart of the historic centre of Lisbon.
Here you often find people queuing outside the small shop and if you happen to be in the area and hear a bell ring, it is the Manteigaria calling clients to say another hot delicious batch has just come out the oven.
By Jay Costa Owen
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.