Pieces of dough are formed into circles by hand in a meditative rhythm. A creamy yellow custard is squeezed into the forms. Finally, they’re placed in the oven, and minutes later a sizzling tray of sweet delights emerges, with flaky crusts and the desired brown spots dotting the gooey tart.
That’s the spectacle at Manteigaria, a pastry shop in the center of Lisbon where guests can sit down at a ceramic counter, order an espresso and watch the skilled hands of bakers making tray after tray of Portugal’s most popular pastries: the classic Portuguese custard tart with the poetic-sounding name, pastéis de nata.
According to most recipes, the tiny egg tarts consist of flour, water and unsalted butter for the puff pastry and flour, milk, castor sugar, water, lemon and — most important — egg yolks for the filling. If you like, there’s also the option of having cinnamon or icing on top.
A Pastry Inspired by the Work of Monks
While the custard tart is an everyday staple in Portuguese life — and can be found more and more in selected cafés all around the world — it’s in Lisbon’s historic neighborhood Belém that the famous Portuguese pastry has its roots.
The story goes that monks of the local Hieronymites Monastery came up with the original recipe before the 18th century. In that era, egg whites were often used for starching clothes so they would become more durable after washing. So as not to waste the leftover egg yolks, the monks started to make pastries with them.
When the monastery in Belém had to close in 1834, the monks sold the recipe to a local pastry shop. The current iteration of that shop is today called Pastelaria Casa Pastéis de Belém, making it the so-called birthplace of pastéis de nata, often also referred to as pastéis de bélem.
Still today, Pastelaria Casa Pastéis de Belém is run by the descendants of the original owners and uses the same secret recipe to create its world-famous pastries.
Don’t be afraid by the inevitably long lines. Instead, sit down at one of the shop’s small tables and marvel at the charming interior with its signature blue-and-white tiled walls. You’ll be rewarded with freshly baked pastéis de nata, still warm and with that desired eggy taste. If you have the time, try to sneak a peek into the kitchen where the magic happens.
Another prime example of Lisbon’s café life and its link to pastéis de nata is Confeitaria Nacional; opened in 1829, it’s one of the oldest bakeries in town. Founded by Balthazar Roiz Castanheiro, the pastry shop is still owned by the original family and functions as the main supplier of pastries to the president of Portugal.
Step inside and you’ll find yourself surrounded by dark wooden walls with ornate decorations. Do it like the locals and get in line for your morning fix of coffee and pastries. Besides their perfectly soft pastéis de nata, be sure to also try their other sweet Portuguese delicacies such as bolo rei (king cake) and bola de berlim com creme, a doughnut-like pastry with egg-yolk filling.
Although the popular custard tarts can be purchased at seemingly every café in Lisbon, there’s nothing like consuming them fresh from their place of origin — plus, they’re the perfect fuel for wandering the hilly, cobblestone streets of Lisbon.