The pastel de nata

When someone thinks about Portugal, I’m of the opinion that the country is immediately associated with some things like fado, its tilery and wonderful food, among many other elements. The codfish dishes, sardines, the typical cozido, the alheira, the tomato and duck rice, the cheese from Serra da Estrela and Azeitão, the cornbread and the pastel de nata are some of the delights that you can taste when visiting the country.

In this article I’m going to pay special attention to pastel de nata, a pastry which I personally love. They are sold all over the country, with the oldest being found in Belém, one region of Lisbon’s. Specifically, these have already been classified as one of the 7 Wonders of Portuguese gastronomy.

What is that?

The pastel de nata (cream custard, when literality translated) is a custard tart with a crunchy shell and a delicious filling. Contrary to what the name suggests, it has no cream!

Traditionally it is eaten with a bit of cinnamon powder on top. In my opinion, the cinnamon makes this delight even better.

What is the origin?

In 1834 Lisbon had about 100 religious sites, like monasteries and convents, which were occupied by different religious orders. But they all were extinct in that year, which led to the expulsion of the clergy that lived in them.

A monastery which already existed back then was the Jerónimos Monastery, today located today in Belém, a few kilometers from Lisbon’s center. Together with the church, this is one of the most visited places in Portugal.

Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery

When the religious orders were extinct, the monks who occupied the Jerónimos Monastery made an attempt to survive. They decided to sell some sweet pastries close to the monastery, taking advantage of the fact that the process of sugar cane refining happened right next to the Monastery. And the pastéis de Belém were born.

The secret recipe emerged between the monks and was passed down to bakers for several years, who prepared the pastéis manually. More recently, about 50 years ago, the recipe was sold, and so it became possible to eat the custard at different places throughout Lisbon. However, the name is different. The pastéis de nata are known as pastéis de Belém only if they are sold at the monks’ old shop.

The best places to eat them

From a historical standpoint, the most interesting place to eat a pastel de nata is Belém, without a doubt. To eat a pastel de Belém is something that anyone should try at least once.

As to the quality, the choice is quite debatable. The pastéis de nata sold in some places around Lisbon are as good as those from Belém. The recipe is exactly the same!

Every year there, the gastronomical festival Peixe em Lisboa, elect the best pastel de nata of Lisbon (Belém holds a trademark and therefore does not enter the contest). This year’s 1st place was the pastel from restaurant Mercado de Peixe, Fidalgo’s pastry shop took the 2nd, and the 3rd spot was won by the Batalha pastry shop. It was in the pastry shop that I won the bronze medal that I went to learn how to make a cream cake. And eat 😉

The Batalha pastry shop

The Batalha pastry shop won the 3rd place in this year’s best pastel de nata, held in Lisbon, and has won many other awards in the meantime. In 2016, for instance, it was awarded the 1st place for its bolo rei, bread and also for its pastel de feijão (bean cake).

The pastry shop name has its origin in the name of the family that has been managing the brand since 1990. Currently, we can find the pastry shop in the heart of Lisbon (Largo Camões) or in two places close to the capital, in Venda do Pinheiro. The famous actress of Portuguese theater, Beatriz Costa, was born in the same place where today we find one of the pastries of Venda do Pinheiro.

The Batalha pays tribute to her by having the actress in its logo, with her unmistakable hair fringe.

Pastry shop Batalha in Largo Camões (Lisbon, Portugal)
Pastry shop Batalha in Largo Camões (Lisbon)

Learning how to do it

Besides being an outstanding spot to eat a couple of pastéis de nata, the Batalha pastry shop is a great place to learn how to do them, or to simply watch the manufacturing process. I took the workshop last month and I liked it a lot. It’s something that always had a certain mystery and I finally understood how we do one.

It takes about two hours and is done by the owner of the pastry shop in Lisbon, who is promptly available to clarify any doubts. João Batalha belongs to the 5th generation of confectioners.

At the end of the workshop, we eat what we helped to prepare, accompanied by a typical ginjinha drink or any other beverage you like. I recommend doing it. Go here for more details on the workshop.

The recipe

If you want to prepare homemade pastéis de nata, then you will need sugar, flour, milk, lemon, cinnamon, eggs and the dough. Start by joining the sugar and the flour, then eat the milk, lemon and cinnamon. Stir without stopping and when the milk is boiling, add the mixture of sugar and flour.

Preparation of the filling in Batalha Pastry, Lisboa, Portugal
Preparation of the filling in Batalha Pastry

Remove it from the heat when the mixture has attained the desired consistency and allow it to cool down, then add the eggs.

Shape with the dough, Batalha Pastry shop, Lisboa, Portugal
Shape with the dough, Batalha Pastry shop

Place the dough in the molds and then add the filling, now cooled down. With the oven already heated, bake the pastéis de nata. Fifteen minutes after, remove them and let them cool down and, as soon as the temperature is fine for you, take a bite! Don’t forget to sprinkle them with cinnamon before doing it.

Filling the dough with the filling, Batalha Pastry shop, Lisboa, Portugal
Filling the dough with the filling, Batalha Pastry shop
Pastry tray of Pasteis de Nata coming out of the oven, Batalha Pastry shop, Lisboa, Portugal
Pastry tray of Pasteis de Nata coming out of the oven, Batalha Pastry shop

The recipe seems quite simple, that’s why the tiny tricks make all difference. The years of experience and the “hand” of each confectioner is what make a pastel de nata stand out.

Travel Guide

When to go: Between June and September for warmer temperatures.

Documents: To enter Portugal, you may need a passport and / or visa, depending on your country in which you live. Citizens of the European Community do not need a visa to enter Portugal. Passports must be valid for up to 6 months (depending on your nationality) and are required by all, except for nationals of the European Union and nationals of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Norway and Switzerland holding valid national identity cards. Brits, Australians, Canadians, Americans and Japanese need a valid passport.

Although it is not mandatory to have a return ticket, it is advisable to have one, because if you do not, you may have to prove sufficient means of financial support to return.

Currency: The local currency is the euro.

Time zone: GMT.

Language: Portuguese.