Lisbon – the best custard tarts

I’ve been a huge fan of Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts) for many years. I’ve sampled them in cities as far away as Guangzhou, Macau and Tokyo, as well as various towns in Portugal and the UK, so I was very excited to finally get to try them in Lisbon, their place of birth. This post is a survey of six of the most famous pastelerias in the capital, with my favourite at the end. You’ll find them all on my Google map.

Pastéis de nata were originally created by Catholic monks at Jerónimos monastery in Belém, which I visited in an earlier post on Manueline architecture. In 1834 the monastery was closed and the secret recipe was sold to a sugar refinery whose owners opened Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, now a hugely popular cafe, on the block next to the monastery. Only the pastéis produced here can be called pastéis de Belém, while all other egg custard tarts are called pastéis de nata.

The queues for both the shop and the cafe are long and it felt like the culmination of a long pilgramage when I eventually got to sit down in the expansive dining room. Service was slow but friendly and I eventually ordered ‘três pastéis e um garoto’ (three pastries and a 50/50 milk coffee) because one is never enough, and two wouldn’t have done the location justice. As expected, the phyllo-like puff pastry was delectably crispy, but I was surpised to find that the egg custard filling was noticably less sweet than elsewhere, although this didn’t diminish my pleasure in any way. They were definitely worth the wait.

The second most famous place in Lisbon for tourists to eat pastéis de nata is Manteigaria, a small, modern chain with a half dozen shops dotted around Lisbon and Porto. I visted the original location in a former butter factory (hence the name) at 2 Rua do Loreto in the posh Chiado district.

The tarts are delicious, very flaky and creamy and a bit sweeter than those at traditional pastelarias. A bell is rung when a fresh batch comes out of the oven every half hour so they’re often still warm when served, a major reason for their popularity.

Other reasons for Manteigaria’s success are their excellent customer service and the fact that the production process is on display behind glass windows in their shops, so that buying a pastry also becomes a visual experience.

In addition I went to another of their locations in a former old haberdashers at 195-197 Rua Augusta in the busy Baixa shopping district.

At their first shop I had my tart with a Bica (similar to espresso) as coffee is generally considered the best match but here I discovered they also go well with a shot of Ginjinha, a liqueur made by infusing sour cherries (prunus cerasus austera, the Morello cherry). Another alternative is Capilè, a drink made of syrup of maidenhair (a kind of fern) with grated lemon zest and cold water.

As you’d expect, many of Lisbon’s famous cafes offer excellent pastries. One must-visit is the historical literary cafe A Brasileira do Chiado which is worth experiencing just for it’s beautiful Belle Epoque interior (see my post on Arte Nova cafes).

I was a bit concerned the pastel de nata was burnt but while it certainly looked well-singed, this didn’t seem to adversley affect the flavour. It must be a huge challenge to get the caramelisation temperature and timings for the custard filling exactly right, without incinerating the crust. I’m told that it’s impossible to make good pastéis de nata at home, because domestic ovens just don’t get hot enough.

The milky coffee (meia de leite) is called a Galão (one quarter coffee and three quarters foamed milk), which is traditionally served in a tall glass.

An even older institution (established in 1829) is Confeitaria Nacional at Praça da Figueira 18B in Baixa. The gorgeous turn-of-the-century interior is a feast for the eyes with its gold fittings, marble counter and mirrors on the ceiling.

Their custard is vanilla-flavoured which is a break with tradition. The filling is very dense and creamy, a nice contrast to the crispy and flaky layers of the pastry which is thicker than elsewhere.

Don’t make my mistake of sprinkling on too much cinnamon directly onto the tart! Put it on the plate instead and dip into it. Although it is the recommended way to eat pastéis, I soon stopped this risky practice as I decided I preferred the simple taste of the naked tart. Like vanilla and lemon, cinnamon is an entirely optional ingredient.

Another venerable instituion (from the early 1920s) with a beautiful interior (marble-clad walls, stained glass panels, crystal chandeliers) is Café Versailles which is a little way out at 15B Avenida da República in Avenidas Novas. Even though they don’t specialise in pastéis de nata, theirs are very good. It’s a traditional tart with a subtle eggy taste and no vanilla or lemon flavouring.

I’ve saved my favourite, and apparently that of most locals, until last. Pastelaria Aloma has three branches, I visited the original location at 67 Rua Francisco Metrass in the well-to-do Campo de Ourique neighbourhood. There’s nothing special about the shop, it’s just a small neighborhood cafe, but the tarts are particularly creamy and, unusually, have a hint of lemon and a thin crust.

So that’s what I think are the best ones anyway. In the end, I wouldn’t kick any pastel de nata out of bed if it was offered to me, and you can get decent ones practically anywhere nowadays, even in my hometown. In Lisbon, popular chains like Copenhagen Coffee Lab or Fábrica Coffee Roasters also make perfectly servicable pastries.

But please remember, man cannot live on pastéis de nata alone…

More info on Portuguese coffee here.

A bit more architecture next!

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