Made using layer upon layer of puff pastry and dollops of set custard you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pastel de nata, or Portuguese custard tart, is a pretty basic dessert. In reality, it’s a pudding shrouded in mystery.
The explosion of Portuguese-influenced chicken restaurant Nando’s - which has pasteis de nata in its menu - as well as the growing number of people heading to Portugal on holiday has seen the spotlight shone on the country’s cuisine. That includes the seemingly-humble Portuguese custard tart.
The tarts are eaten across Portugal and the Lusophone world as a snack at all times of the day, with a cup of coffee. Traditionally, the tarts are made using milk, egg, sugar, cinnamon - as opposed to nutmeg used in the British custard version - and vanilla, held together in a puff-pastry casing. But aside from that basic formula, the ins and outs are top-secret among the top pastel de nata cooks.
It all harks back to the origins of pasteis de nata in the 19th century. The story goes that a monk sold the recipe to a bakery in the Belém district of the capital Lisbon in 1834, after the monasteries were closed by the state.
“The family went on to found the famous bakery in Belem where the original tarts are still made,” Rebecca Seal, the author of Lisbon: Recipes from the Heart of Portugal, explains. In peak season, the bakery makes up to 50,000 tarts a day. There, they are baked at 400 C and using milk-based custard. But little else is known about their methods.
“The recipe is kept a secret, with only the family and three people who make them in the know as to exactly how they're made,” says Seal.
For Bruno Costa, the founder of I Love Nata in central London which, you guessed it, only sells a certain Portuguese sweet, the dessert is “a way of life”. He moved here from Lisbon nine years ago, and opened in 2015. The store also stocks apple and cinnamon, and chocolate tarts, as such updated flavours have become popular in Portugal.
Asked what the secret is to baking delicious pasteis de nata, he tells The Independent: “Passion, love and attention to detail. And the ingredients. To get it right it takes experience and dedication. It takes a lot to get those pastry layers and smooth texture."
Pressed on the shop’s recipe he adds, “all ingredients are sourced and or produced in Portugal. That is absolutely key.”
“We can’t disclose such information, sorry,” he replies when quizzed just on where he gets his inspiration for his recipes, let alone the details. In the end, we gave up. But they’re not the only bakeries that are tight-lipped about their recipes.
Portguese Taste, a stall in Bristol’s St Nicholas Market and regarded as one of the best makers of pasteis de nata in the world, told the Guardian in an interview that her secret to is the way she makes the cream. “This I don’t tell anybody,” she teased.
Luckily, having recently released a recipe book, Seal is happy to share her take on the process.
"For me, making them at home you need an oven which goes up to a very high heat. I cook mine at 275C, with two pizza stones pre-heated for an hour above and below the tarts so that they are subject to lots of intense radiant heat. You also really need a pan thermometer to perfect the custard filling. And you need patience. There's a lot of rolling, filling, chilling and heating to be done, very precisely, in order to temper the egg yolks and create the delicious crisp layers of pastry."
She adds: “It’s time consuming, but it's worth it.”