Custard tarts – pastel de nata – are deeply embedded in Portuguese culture. They are everywhere. Bakeries around the world try and replicate them. And even home cooks have a shot.
I’ve eaten them in Melbourne but they never enchanted me like they did in Portugal. Spending a month chilling out in Lisbon, barely a day went by when I didn’t have one or two of these tarts. It became my personal mission to find the best in town.
These tarts take hard labour and hot 400C ovens to make well. The pastry is laminated with butter like an extra fine croissant. Each bakery – or pasteleria – has its own secret formula for the custard filling involving eggs, butter (naturally), lemon, sugar and other spices such as cinnamon.
The balance of fat, egg and sugar is critical. Too much fat and a dry greasy film is left on the top palate.
Pastel de nata are a dish best served warm. Not too hot. And definitely not cold. Each “pastéis” (pronounce it pahshteysh) is slightly different. Some have a thin laminated pastry crust; others thicker. Some are more creamy and have more flavour than others.
All have a dark caramalised top, though to different degrees.
What I discovered is the best pastéis is the one you have in your hand right now.
And my findings weren’t that different to anybody else.
The top three pastel de nata in lisbon
Pastéis de Belém
R. Belém, 1300-085 Lisboa
Open 7 days 8am to 11pm
A five minute tram or train ride from Cascais, you’ll instantly recognise this place for the queue of tourists queueing for takeaways.
Don’t join this queue as the place is huge. It’s even bigger than you can imagine inside and you’ll find a seat quickly. There’s a window into the kitchen which bakes the pastéis and other pastries throughout the day.
Their pastéis has a thin delicate shell and good lemony flavour.
R. Francisco Metrass 67, 1350 Lisboa
Open 7 days 8am to 7pm
Aloma is right on the top of a hill in a residential suburb on inner Lisbon. It’s a simple cafe that also happens to make terrific pastéis.
These are the first ones we ate that our Airbnb host, a Lisbon local, presented to us. They were sheer heaven with thick crisp crust and a very custardy filling.
Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata
Rua do Loreto 2, Lisboa
Open 7 days 8am to 12am
This old butter – manteiga – factory, makes just one thing. As each tray of pastéis comes out the oven a bell rings. You can watch the labour intensive preparation from weighing and rolling out the pastry to manually assembling the pastel de nata here. The coffee ain’t bad either.
My first impressions of these weren’t good – they left a greasy slime on my top palate. But I did return several times as this was my local for the month and the first time was the only time I’d carried them home to be eaten later. In fact, served warm in the cafe with a hot coffee to accompany them they were sheer heaven whilst we watched the worker bees busily making hundreds more.