Portugal’s iconic pastel de nata is fast becoming one of the world’s most-loved pastries. PDV went in search of its presence around the globe, and tells you how a simple custard tart is taking the wold by storm, creating a sweet revolution of its own.
The pastel de nata, Portugal’s most revered sweet, is fast becoming a symbol for the country abroad. It is also a perfect example of Portuguese entrepreneurship which is taking the world by storm. From the original recipe, first registered in 1837, until today, the pastel de nata (pastéis de nata in the plural) – or puff pastry tarts with a slightly burnt custard filling – , has become one of Portugal’s finest exports, almost as famous as Port wine, and is conquering its place in pastry shops and cafés from London to Shanghai. It has also been recognised by publications like The Guardian as one of the best things to eat in the world.
In a recent conference on Portuguese competitiveness, Portugal’s minister of the economy, Álvaro Santos Pereira, resorted to the pastel de nata to illustrate the country’s export potential. The minister asked why there was not “a franchise of pastéis de nata“, calling for Portuguese producers to beef up their efforts to sell the Portuguese custard tart abroad. The example of the thriving Portuguese pastry industry which has spread around the world could prove an incentive: the real essence of the pastel de nata – small, tasty, creamy and preferably flaky – is loved by the Portuguese diaspora and international consumers alike. It has all the ingredients for a recipe of success.
The Portuguese are renowned for their sweet tooth, a characteristic that stems from a long tradition of sweets developed in the secrecy of monasteries and convents. The pastel de nata is believed to have been created before the 19th century by the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery, located in the district of Belém, in Lisbon who, struggling with financial difficulties, sold them to the public who flocked to the monastery’s doors to eat the now famous tarts. The recipe proved a success, and when convents were shut down in Portugal as a result of the Liberal Revolution in 1820, it was bought and preserved by an entrepreneur who opened up a pastry shop in the same neighbourhood. The pastel de Belém, as the original is still called, was thus saved from extinction and nowadays still lives on, with the original recipe being closely guarded by the most famous producer of the delicacy: the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Throughout the years, though, its success forced other competitors to arrive on the scene, and its popularity grew across the country.
Vicente Themudo de Castro, a member of the Portuguese Confraria do Pastel de Nata, a confraternity established to defend the legacy of the famous pastry, told PDV that “everyone associates the pastel de nata with Portugal”, and that “more pastéis de nata are sold abroad” than in the entire country – where you can find them literally everywhere. This icon of the country reached the rest of the world through the Portuguese diaspora and is spreading fast: the British café chain Caffè Nero already sells ‘Portuguese custard tarts’, while others are working to adopt the recipe to their menus.
From Paris to Berlin
China is the most impressive example: Andrew Stow, the Englishman who introduced the pastéis de nata to mainland China after opening the Andrew’s Coffee and Natas business first in Macau, where he first tasted the custard tarts, and later in Hong Kong, was the main promoter of the pastel de nata in the Asian market. Stow found his golden goose after franchising the “coffee and natas” concept and, after the initial success, ended up selling the franchise to the giant KFC in China. This was described by Themudo de Castro as “a huge bungle”, because despite being responsible for the biggest promotion of the pastel de nata to this day, the recipe was dramatically changed from the original. According to Themudo de Castro, KFC sells it with “crystalised fruit” and other innovations (or aberrations) to the recipe.
However, the Portuguese diaspora has been acting as guardians of the real pastel de nata around the world. Comme à Lisbonne, in Paris, opened just eight months ago and is already proving a success, being located in the district of Le Marais, known as one of the most fashionable neigbourhoods in the French capital. The founder Victor Silveira and his French associate Christophe Boiteaux decided to invest in Portuguese delicacies, gourmet products and other exclusive wares, such as the trendy canned sardines of Conserveira de Lisboa or Bordallo Pinheiro faience. “Our original target were French clients“, Victor Silveira told PDV, adding that “around 70% of the customers” are French. Tourists and Portuguese, of course, have also been flocking to the small café to savour a pastel de nata and drink a Portuguese espresso. Comme à Lisbonne‘s pastéis de nata are freshly baked on site, and the café makes “more than 30 batches” a day.
In Germany, one of the main places selling pastéis de nata in the country’s capital has nothing to do with the Portuguese diaspora. Berlin’s Café Galão is known to attract customers in search of the Portuguese delicacy. Axel Burbacher, the owner and founder, told PDV that he decided to open Galão after his connection with Portugal, which began when he met members of the Portuguese community in Hamburg. After trying out the pastéis de nata Burbacher decided to set up a business in the German capital. Since opening 11 years ago, Café Galão has been attracting customers from all over, some of which are only interested in savouring one of the famous custard tarts.
Pastéis in London and in Los Angeles for Nicole Kidman
In Europe’s most cosmopolitan city, London, the Lisbon Patisserie has also helped to establish and promote this pastel de nata fever beyond Portugal. The bakery, located in Kensal Town, was founded by Carlos Gomes in 1995 and produces around 18,000 pastéis de nata a day. The increase in the number of customers is staggering: Gomes told PDV that when they first opened “the customers were 90% Portuguese”, but now the ratio has fallen to 30%, and presently “70% of our visitors are British”, he said. The owner of the self-styled first Portuguese pastelaria in London described the Portuguese minister of the economy’s recent statement as “nonsense“, since many Portuguese have been selling pastéis de nata abroad for “decades”, he said.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, pastéis de nata have already attracted the attention of many. Fátima Marques, interviewed by Notícias Magazine, is the owner of Natas Pastries in Los Angeles, where the likes of Nicole Kidman and Jamie Foxx have been seen eating the famous custard tart. Marques said she thought of pastéis de nata as “stars” in their own right. She told the magazine her shop sells between 100 and 300 of the flaky tarts each day. Across the US, another successful case is the Alfama Restaurant in New York which, according to Notícias Magazine, sells 150 pastéis de nata a day in what is one of the most internationally renowned Portuguese establishments. According to the magazine, the Alfama has already attracted personalities like Al Pacino and Kate Winslet. The two owners, Brazilian Tarcísio Costa and Portuguese Miguel Jerónimo, told reporters that some say their pastéis de nata, baked on site, “are just as good as the pastéis de Belém“.