Who invented the Portuguese custard tart?

Now we know: Pastéis de nata linked to Catholic monks in Lisbon in the 18th and 19th centuries

Not all cakes are created equal, and the pastel de nata is the proof in the pudding. You may have had the privilege of biting into one of these creamy custard tarts and their crispy layered pastry cases while on holidays in Portugal, or maybe even when travelling in the Portuguese-influenced Brazil or Macau. Or perhaps, like me, you’ve noticed that the humble pastéis de nata have been popping up on the shelves of bakeries and coffee shops around Ireland of late.

Fans of pastéis de nata have spotted homemade versions in The Cupcake Bloke’s new bakery and shop in Rialto, Dublin 8. Clanbrassil Coffee Shop, also in Dublin 8, make theirs from scratch daily. Others have reported to me that Dunnes Stores and Supervalu are doing decent versions of the little tart in their bakeries, and I’ve been told that Hugo’s in Lahinch and Sol Rio in Westport also do these tarts justice. Via Twitter, The Stuffed Olive in Bantry, Co Cork gets a shout out from Irish food writer Trish Deseine. “The only thing better than The Stuffed Olive’s custard tarts,” she says, “are their custard tarts with rhubarb.”

But who invented these perfectly contained parcels of pleasure? The creation of pastéis de nata, as we know them, are linked to the Catholic monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in the parish of Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon in the 18th and 19th centuries. At this time, it was not uncommon for monks and nuns to use a huge amount of egg whites while starching clothes in their laundries. They had to find something to do with all those leftover egg yolks so they often used them to make cakes and pastries.

An outcome of the political upheaval caused by the Liberal Revolution of 1820 in Portugal was the extinction of religious orders and the eventual closure of convents and monasteries. To sustain themselves before their closure, the monks began selling their pastéis de nata (which translates as “cream cake”, by the way) to a neighbouring sugar refinery. According to the Pastéis de Belém website, the monasteries were closed in 1834 and the monk’s secret pastéis de nata recipe was sold to the owners of the sugar refinery. In 1837, the owners of the sugar refinery opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém to produce the pastéis de Belém following the “ancient secret recipe from the monastery.” Today, pastéis de nata are sold over the counter of Pastéis de Belém on Rua De Belém in Lisbon and are still made using the closely guarded secret recipe of the Jeronimos Monastery monks.