Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portugal's Culinary Heritage - Pastel de Nata (Pastel de Belém)

The original
How can a simple pastry be both enjoyed in all corners of the world where there's a significant Portuguese cultural heritage AND have a recipe that's known to only three people in the world?? This seemingly impossible-to-revolve dichotomy has been successfully been bridged by a small Portuguese egg-custard tart called either Pastel de Nata (cream tart) or Pastel de Belém (Belém tart).

The tart's origins are in the epicenter of the former Portguese empire - the city of Lisbon. More specifically, they lie behind the enclosing walls of the Jerónimos Monastery in the city's Belém district. During the imperial epoque, monasteries and convents throughout Portugal made cakes and sweets, which they sold to the public to raise funds. The bakers of the Jerónimos Monastery were famed for making a small tart with a puff-pastry crust and a sweet, rich eggy custard filling. These were the original pastéis de Belém and their recipe was a closely guarded secret.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, many of these monasteries closed or folded up their pastry operation, including that of the Jerónimos Monastery. An enterprising Brazilian baker named Domingo Rafael Alves who lived in Lisbon finagled the recipe out of one of the monastery's former bakers and in 1837 opened a pastry shop called Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Today the shop is owned by descendents of Sr. Alves and still specializes in the tarts that made it famous almost two hundred years ago and that have made it prosperous up til today.

At the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém three master bakers (the only three who are privy to the recipe) make the dough and the filling in a locked, alarmed and guarded room, passing them to assistants outside who form the tarts, fill them and cook them. Every day thousands of customers, many of them tourists, but tens of thousands of these treats, and eat many of them in the bake shop itself, served with a demitasse of strong Portuguese coffee.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Lisbon

Long ago, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém registered the name Pastel de Belém and legally only those tarts made on site, from the original recipe are entitled to be called Pastel de Belém. Any other similar tart, from anywhere else, is a Pastel de Nata. At least in theory, that's the case, but the law isn't universally enforced and one can find tarts called Pastel de Belém in pastry shops from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, to Luanda, and on to Malacca and Macau. In Brazil they can be found in almost all pastry shops and are a favorite mid-afternoon treat or part of a dessert buffet at a gala party or a wedding reception.

Chinese egg tart
It's at the most-distant reaches of the former Portuguese empire that these tarts have been most enthusiastically adopted. Throughout southeast Asia and southern China (and around the world of the Chinese diaspora) bakeshop shelves groan under the weight of sweet egg-custard tarts. I've seen them in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Francisco and London. The crust is no longer puff pastry, it's more typically standard pie crust and the filling normally isn't carmelized and crispy as it is back in Lisbon but these Chinese bakeshop standards are still recognizably pastéis de Belém.

Obviously, the three people in the world who have the true recipe for Pastel de Belém  do not include us here at Flavors of Brazil, and so we won't be publishing the authentic recipe. However, in upcoming posts we will provide a very typical, hopefully almost-authentic recipe for a tart that might be called Pseudo-pastel de Belém, as well as one for the Asian version that's found in Chinatowns around the world.

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