A pastel de nata, also known as a Portuguese custard tart, might be one of the best things in the world. It’s a deliciously sweet egg custard tart, with crispy, flaky pastry and a rich, creamy filling, blistered on top from the high heat of the oven. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.
The best pairing for a pastel de nata is a good coffee. Usually served espresso-size, with or without milk, the strong bitter taste is a perfect compliment to the sweet pastry.
Portuguese custard tarts were listed by the Guardian as the 15th best food in the world. Personally I think they were robbed of first place.
If you’ve never tried one, stop what you’re doing and book a flight to Portugal right now. It will be worth it.
During our visit to Portugal, I took it upon myself to try as many pastéis de nata as possible so that we could let you know where to find the best ones. You’re welcome.
Here is a brief history of the pastel de nata, as well as our recommendations on where to find the best ones in Lisbon and Porto.
To clarify any confusion with spelling: pastel de nata is a single tart, and pastéis de nata is the plural version. I didn’t figure that out until the end of our trip!
The history of the pastel de nata
Pastéis de nata were created sometime before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery, in the parish of Belém in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg whites for starching clothes. Nuns then used the leftover egg yolks make pastries and cakes.
During the Liberal Revolution of 1820, all convents and monasteries were shut down. In an attempt for survival, the Jerónimos Monastery sold the sweet pastries in a store that belonged to the sugar cane refinery next door. The pastries were soon known as ‘pastéis de Belém’.
In 1837, the sugar refinery started baking the pastéis de Belém in their buildings, using the secret recipe passed on from the monks. To this day, you can visit the Antiga Confeitaria de de Belém cafe, which is still run by descendants of the original sugar refinery using the same secret recipe. The current owner of the store has stated that only 3 people in the world know this secret recipe. Only pastries made using this recipe are designated at pastéis de Belém, whereas others are called pastéil de nata.
The best pastéis de nata in Lisbon
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
Home of the original pastry. They’ve been making the tarts here for almost 200 years, and are now churning out over 20,000 every day, so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing.
The lines are often long, so you may have to wait. Served with a little sachet of powdered sugar and cinnamon, each tart is as delicious as you would expect.
Manteigaria, a coffee shop with locations in Lisbon and Porto, have the opposite mindset to the secretive approach in Belém. Here, you can watch the master artisanal bakers create the pastéil de nata through the glass. Manteigaria prides itself on the high quality of ingredients used, and the months of training each baker undergoes to properly learn how to knead and fold the pastry by hand.
Confeitaria Nacional is considered one of the most antique and traditional pastry shops in Lisbon. As well as pastéil de nata, they have a wide selection of other delicious cakes and pastries. Owned by the 6th generation of the original family, the shop is furnished with decorative woodwork, a mirrored ceiling, and marble counters.
Pastelaria Alcôa looks just as good from the outside as it’s pastries taste inside. Once a beautiful tobacco shop, it still features much of the original decor, including the coloured mosaic tiles on the exterior walls. The smell of smoke, however, has been replaced by the luscious scent of fresh-baked sweets. It’s standing room only to eat their delicious pastries.
The best pastéis de nata in Porto
Confeitaria do Bolhão
Confeitaria do Bolhão is right across the street from the Bolhão Market. Opt to either eat in or takeaway from the counter at the front. In addition to the pastéil de nata, there is a wide selection of sweet and savoury pastries available.
The original Manteigaria is in Lisbon, but I believe the Porto location to be better. You can watch the pastéil de nata being made through the large glass window, and there is an amazing selection of espresso-based drinks and cocktails. Plus the shop itself is spacious and beautiful, with large windows and marble tables.
Nata Lisboa is a chain that has stores throughout Portugal, as well as several franchises all over the world. There’s even one in England, in Peterborough – although I haven’t made it there yet. Their slogan is ‘The World Needs Nata’, and I think they’re on to something. Opt for the pastry on its own; we weren’t impressed with the coffee.
The best pastéis de nata in London
I know, technically not in Portugal. But for those of us in England who don’t have a trip to Portugal planned in the foreseeable future, where can we get our fix?
Fortunately there are several options.
I Love Nata has two locations in Covent Garden and Soho. It was founded by a Lisbon native, and all the tarts are made entirely with ingredients sourced and/or produced in Portugal. There is also the Lisboa Patisserie in Notting Hill, Cafe de Nata in Hammersmith, or you can even get one as a snack mid-way through your spending spree at Harrods.
And yes, they are also on the menu at Nando’s. As if we needed another reason to go.
We actually first tried a pastel de nata at Vinyl Cafe at Tileyard Studios in London, the music industry complex where we both previously worked. Having tried authentic Portuguese ones, I can say with confidence that the ones in Vinyl Cafe are pretty spot on!
Hot or not?
There seems to be some debate on whether pastéis de nata should be served hot or at room temperature.
Having researched many forums discussing the topic, the general consensus is that it is easier to hide an imperfect recipe with a hot pastel de nata, and that the best way to savour the flavour of a great one is to eat it at room temperature.
You shouldn’t get a cold one, as pastéis de nata do not need to be refrigerated if they are consumed on the same day they are made. In fact, if you do get a cold one, it might be a sign that it is not freshly baked, in which case you should go somewhere else.
Pastéis de Belém, arguably one of the most famous spots to grab a pastry, traditionally serves them warm. Other places will refuse to serve them until they have cooled down. Ultimately, it’s all a matter of preference. I personally think they are delicious either way, and will take what I’m given – or perhaps even opt for both!
Are pastéis de nata healthy?
A pastel de nata has between 250-350 calories (depending on the recipe). While that certainly couldn’t be considered a healthy amount, it is less than many other pastries. There is also some calcium from the butter and protein from the egg, so I say indulge to your heart’s content.
Pastéis de nata recipe
Pastéis de nata can be quite tricky to make. If you fancy giving it a go yourself, this video from Cupcake Jemma makes it look easy.
Now what are you waiting for? Book a flight to Portugal and go and try one yourself!
Do you have a favourite foreign food?
Let us know in the comments, we’d love to try it!
Take a look at our Porto travel guide to start planning your own trip to Porto.
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