I’m just back from an eight-day hike in Portugal, and as much as I’d love to report that the hiking has rendered me a svelte imitation of my former self… well, it hasn’t. Reason? I blame the Portuguese egg tarts. Pastéis de nata – that’s what they’re called in the local lingo. It means “pure custardy evil in a warm pastry cup”.
If you’re an Australian who, like me, grew up on a steady diet of custard tarts (usually ordered together with a sausage roll and a chocolate milk – the holy trinity of the Aussie bakery), you’ll understand why I couldn’t resist them in Portugal. It has to be said, though, the Portuguese version of the tart makes ours seem kind of… flabby. Nothing can beat the crisp, wafer-thin layers of a pastel de nata, or those glistening black spots of caramelisation. If the psychologists had used these things in the Stanford marshmallow experiment, the kids would’ve opted for immediate gratification every time.
I don’t know how many tarts I ate over the course of eight days. Lots. Scarfed them down – usually while leaning at a bar; sometimes just on a random footpath. Is that greedy? Probably. But they’re available everywhere (yes, even when you’re hiking), and they’re only about a euro each.
The place with the reputation for the best tarts in Portugal is Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, a cafe in the lovely Lisbon suburb of Belem. Here’s a photo of my half-eaten (sorry, I couldn’t wait) pastel de nata from the place – note the dual dustings of cinnamon and icing sugar – alongside a cafe pingado (“coffee with a drop [of milk]”).
While this was my first trip to Portugal, it wasn’t my first encounter with Portuguese egg tarts. They’re actually a big thing in China, would you believe – even KFC sells them, which, I dunno, seems a bit wrong. The Chinese developed a hankering for them via the Portuguese influence in Macau. I went to Macau a few times during my stint in China, and whereas most people make a beeline for the blackjack table, I always made a beeline for Lord Stow’s Bakery in Coloane, famous for its version of pastéis de nata. Here’s a photo of one of their tarts from a trip in 2006.
My sage advice, then, is if you happen to be in Portugal or Macau or even Changsha in Hunan Province and you see something that resembles a pastel de nata, HAVE AT IT.