Rose's August Shop Watch: Pastel de Nata
Pastel de Nata
Unearthed - Pastel de Nata
The best custard tart in the world
I am certainly clocking up my imaginary airmiles this summer, as this month I find myself in Portugal. And the reason why is for its custard tart – pastel de nata (or pastéis de nata plural). This seemingly modest product has been listed by the Guardian as one of the 50 “best things to eat” in the world. It has also been pronounced one of Portugal’s Seven Wonders of gastronomy. This small round tart made of the crispiest flakiest pastry and filled with egg custard, blistered brown on top, and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon is heavenly. And oh so difficult to make yourself.
I do love it when there is an interesting history behind a famous product. Pastel de nata originated in a monastery just outside Lisbon – the Hieronymites monastery in the Santa Maria de Bélem area, also locally known as Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. Monks used to use egg white to starch their clothes and the leftover yolks were then made into cakes and pastries. When the monasteries closed in Portugal in 1834 the recipe was sold to a neighbouring sugar refinery and the company began baking them in 1837, called pasteis de Bélem. The original recipe is a guarded secret and kept locked in a special room, known only to a few. And their shop sells them at a rate of 20,000 a day.
A Portuguese friend of mine, Anabela, sometimes brings some pastéis de nata round, which she has bought from a Portuguese deli in London, and for her these are the only true authentic article. We eat them as we should, accompanied by an obligatory espresso. But she agrees they are difficult to bake yourself. I have tried to make them, but they do not taste the same. If you want to try you can even buy the special moulds from Amazon. But this is one of the few examples where shop-bought is definitely better than home-made!
So where to get your shop-bought pastéis de nata (the name meaning cream pastries)? Well, if you live in London you can go to a Café de Nata, an artisan bakery/café specialising in these Portuguese custard tarts which they cook in front of you. Take some home or eat them there with an espresso. But can they be bought in bigger shops like a supermarket? Well, in both Waitrose and Sainsbury’s you can get them fresh from the bakery counter or order them online. (Waitrose also sell fruit versions but, in my view, these are not the real thing.) From both stores these are perfectly acceptable if not up to the standard of Anabela’s deli. However, there is a company called Unearthed who sell frozen ones through Waitrose. This company has an aim to discover and introduce exciting world foods to the UK market, and sells all sorts of lovely products from Spanish omelettes to pork rillettes, to garlic king prawns. Their Portuguese tarts are baked from frozen in just 8-10 minutes and eaten warm, and are the closest you can get to an authentic pastel de nata. You just need an espresso.
Tart it up
Unearthed Pastel de Nata
6 in a box £4.00 (bake from frozen)
Selected stores and online
Price and availability as at 31st July 2021