With its resplendent blue skies, abundant sunshine and cool Atlantic breezes, Lisbon had me smitten almost from the minute I stepped off the plane. But the moment I held a pastel de nata in my hand and felt its flaky crust and warm, custard filling in my mouth? Wooo! That was something else. That, my friends, was love.
Pasteis de nata, traditional Portuguese custard tarts, are everywhere. All the cafés and bakeries have them, and in the morning, people leaning over counters, sipping coffees and scarfing down pasteis, are a common sight.
I tried my first at Manteigaria, a Lisbon bakery that makes them fresh in-house, all day long. When a friend took me there my first night in town (remember: any time is a good time for pastries), bakers filled tray after tray of creamy custard treats.
The best pasteis de nata have flaky, buttery crusts and custard centers that are smooth and creamy, sweet and subtly eggy in flavor. The tops are slightly charred so the sugar caramelizes and gives each tart the burnt-sweetness that goes so well with a sprinkle of cinnamon and powdered sugar.
During my week in Lisbon, I had these pastries for breakfast in the morning and snacks throughout the day, at cafes all over town, and with varying degrees of deliciousness, and while it’s worth noting I never once had a bad one, Manteigaria’s pasteis were some of my favorite.
The title of absolute best, however, is an honor that most Lisboans reserve for Pasteis de Belem, a bakery in nearby Belem that’s been turning out these little tarts of perfection since 1837 when monks from the neighboring Mosteiro do Jeronimos started selling them as a means of making money. The old-timey café is a bustling scene of pastry gobbling tourists and locals, while the glass counter in the front keeps a steady crowd of admirers snaking out the front door.
When I made the pilgrimage to the famed pastry shop (and the monastery down the street, thank you very much) and finally got my hands on one of their baked treats, I immediately understood what the fuss was about. While other pasteis had been good, this one was perfect. The crust, made of layers of delicate, thin pastry dough, was buttery and crisp, and the still-warm custard center, made of egg yolks, sugar and at least some small part of heaven itself, was velvety soft and sweet without being cloying.
Call them pasteis de nata or de Belem, I’d gladly eat these every day for the rest of my life, just like I did during that that delicious week in Portugal.