OK, truth be told, this tasty treat wasn’t the ONLY reason I went to Portugal . . . but Pastéis de nata was the first thing on my list of “must-eats.” And true to my plans, we arrived in Lisbon, dropped off our bags, and headed down the street to try this much-researched, highly acclaimed little treat. It did not disappoint.
What is this little delicacy? Pastéis de nata is an egg-based pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. That’s it. I know, it doesn’t sound too original or exciting, but I’ve learned in my travels that sometimes, the simplest things are, indeed, the best. (See: pan con tomate, caprese salad, and . . . bacon. Any bacon.) The pastry is flaky, the filling is custard-like and creamy, the cinnamon adds the perfect amount of spice, and together, it’s a small piece of perfection.
Pastéis de nata is one of those delicious things that, when being consumed, makes you feel like the luckiest person in the world. How did I end up in Portugal? How did I get to be so fortunate that I can be eating something so tasty? This is typically followed by guilt, as you wish all of your friends and family were here, eating the same thing. I wouldn’t buy the world a Coke: I’d get them all a tasty pastéis de nata from Belem, an area outside of Lisbon, Portugal.
The best foods are also those with stories, and the history of pastéis de nata is quite rich. The pastry was created in the 18th century by monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in the parish of Santa Maria de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal. Eggs were abundant in monasteries: the whites were used to starch clothes (think “nun habit”), resulting in an abundance of egg yolks . . . and delicious treats. After losing funding following the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the monks partnered with a local sugar refinery to sell the pastries. When the monastery closed in 1834, the recipe was sold to the refinery, which opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém three years later. The company is still owned by the family and is said to produce 50,000 of these treats each day.
A trip to Belem is worth it for the pastry alone, but it comes with a heaping side of history and architecture. After grabbing a pastry, head to the monastery, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and enjoy its beautiful Gothic architecture. Peak inside and see the tombs of the royal family and Vasco de Gama (remember that guy?).
Walk along the water and check out the views. Then head back for another pastry, because you know you want one. 🙂