I'm back home in Cape Town after 8 days in Lisbon this past December. It was, on one level, a pastry safari of sorts. No surprise then that my first post – travel craving was for pastel de nata (plural being pasteis de nata) so I hotfooted it to one of our city's finest bakers and scooped up a box for my birthday tea two Fridays ago. Much as I respect that bakerman, I have to say it was a deflating experience, just too far removed from what I'd savoured in Portugal. I am now feeling like a pasteis connoisseur I'm not going to deny it.
So now I'd like to expand on these spectacular little cakes I discovered and devoured by the dozen in Lisboa.
I'm told that the monks at the 16th century Jeronynimos Monastery in Belem, Lisbon, were the first to make pasteis way long ago. They apparently used to use egg whites to starch the uniforms of nuns, and the left-over yolks went into making and baking their delish decadent baked goodies. At some point, post 1820 I believe, the Brothers started selling their coveted pasteis after the monastery was closed due to secularisation in 1834. The secret recipe was sold to a sugar refinery close by, whose owners in 1837 opened the Casa Pastéis de Belém, practically next door. The descendents of that family own the business to this day and it's on every tourists must-see list. Eating pasteis in Belém is a ritual – it's imperative and no trip to Lisbon is complete without it.
The oldest, and some say the very best place to go for pasteis in Lisbon however, is the Confeitaria Nacional in Praca da Figuiera. On a busy Sunday they've been known to sell 50,000 pasteis to the sweet toothed masses.
If you're in Lisbon around Christmas time don't forget to try the traditional fried pumpkin fritters…light, round shaped cakes coated in sugar and cinnamon, known as brinhois. My late granny used to make these so eating them was very nostalgic.
So what's all the pasteis fuss about? Well for starters my Lisboa pdl's were way creamier than what I've tasted here at home and they're served warm, with crispy, flaky pastry – I can still hear that delicate crunch of my first nibble. The custard was the perfect consistency, not too thick or runny, with a divine hint of vanilla and fragrant cinnamon.
My aha moment with the PDN (pasteis de nata) was when I learnt how to eat it properly. I saw an old lady at Nata outside the main gate of Castelo St Jorge doing it like the locals do; she started by scooping out the centre with a tiny teaspoon, then she ate the 'cup' part, slowly. So clearly this is a process that mustn't be rushed. The PDN is a pastry that demands you take your time to savour it.
One pastel is seldom enough which is unfortunate for one's waistline, but who actually cares…no-one. So go large and double your gym time when you get home. It'll be worth the pain.
PS. @lateralpaul tells me there's a Portuguese deli in Voortrekker road, Cape Town that sells amazing pasteis… a visit is on my list. I'll report back for sure.