Portuguese monks from the 17th century know how to make a dessert
Before I left on my trip to Portugal, everyone I talked to told me I had to try a pastel de nata, a ubiquitous egg custard tart sold in just about every pastry shop around Lisbon. Pastéis de nata didn't immediately seem particularly interesting to me, frankly. Egg custard doesn't sound all that appetizing, and I've eaten my fair share of good tart shells. But when I met up with my friend Emily at our sunny Lisbon AirBnB, and her eyes got wide talking about the pastéis de nata she'd had a few days before in Porto, I decided I could stand to try it.
Monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in Belém, just outside of Lisbon proper, are credited with inventing pastéis de nata in the 17th century. Monasteries went through large quantities of egg whites for starching all those holy robes. So, as to not waste the precious yolks, they turned to making pastries and cakes. When the Liberal Revolution of 1820 threatened to close many convents and monasteries in Portugal, the monks started selling the pastéis de nata to bring in a little extra cash. And when the Jeronimos Monastery did finally close in 1834, the monks sold the recipe to a sugar refinery, whose owners opened a bakery in 1837 to sell the egg tarts, along with other sweets. That bakery, called Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, still sells the pastries today.
However, when Emily and I set out in search of pastéis de nata, we turned instead to Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata, because just about everyone we talked to in Portugal said they have the best version. After walking right past the storefront the first time (we did that a lot in Lisbon), we stepped into the bakery. We took the tarts with us to a thin marble counter against the glass wall lining the kitchen, and watched the masters at work. In their chilled workspace—and it had to be, Lisbon was hot—the pastry chefs smoothed out the tart shell dough in shallow tin after shallow tin, before filling the tart with the custard filling.
Mildly mesmerized by the scene in front of me, I took a bite of my pastel de nata without really thinking, and was shocked by how delicious it was. It was sweet but not cloying, spiked with a healthy dose of cinnamon and vanilla. The crunchy, buttery tart shell provided relief from what could have been overwhelming creaminess. It was gone in four perfect bites.
Our last night in Lisbon, after stuffing ourselves with cod and beans and a pork stew and some of the best gelato I've ever had, we were walking back to our AirBnB to pack. I had just finished a dramatic conversation with Emily about how it was maybe a good thing that I just had one perfect experience eating pastéis de nata, when in the thick of Lisbon's nightlife, we found ourselves standing right in front of Manteigaria, still open at nearly midnight. We didn't have a choice in the matter, did we? We had to get some more.
The next morning, shortly after take-off, Emily pulled the box of pastéis de nata out of her bag. Flying over the ocean, we toasted with our tarts. They tasted just as good at 35,000 feet off the ground.