Pastel de nata: the big story of a small pie

To listen to the beating heart of Portugal’s history, you should take the time to wander around Belem, west of Lisbon. Along the banks of the Tagus, a visitor can walk at the foot of the Discoveries monument, which celebrates the great navigators, admire the Museu dos Coches, an impressive collection of old royal coaches gilded with foliage, and then visit the extraordinary Jeronimos monastery. .. Built in 1502 with gold brought from the New World, the monumental building houses the tombs of Vasco de Gama (1469-1524), poet Luis de Camoens (1525-1580) and writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).

But it is in the privacy of this UNESCO World Heritage monastery that the recipe for the country’s tastiest treasure was developed more than two centuries ago: pastel de nata. To taste it, tourists and hikers today wait a few steps away, in front of an illuminated sign: Fabrica Dos Pastéis de Belém. The mosaic on the floor reminds us that this pastry shop has been operating since 1837! Inside, amid the wooden counters and azulejos decor, customers rush to buy cinnamon-dusted mini butterfly tartlets to enjoy in the cool of the surrounding gardens.

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Pastel de nata: A custard cake invented by the monks of Belem

The history of pastel (“cake”, in Portuguese) dates back to the second half of the 18th century. Food writer Thiago Martins explains its origins Portuguese history on my plate (ed. Cadamoste, 2022). In 1760, in Belem, then a separate city from Lisbon, the brothers of the Order of St. Jerome invented this little egg delicacy, round, golden and sun-warmed in a crispy batter.

At that time, the monks lived mainly on the offerings of the nobles: flour, almonds, sugar brought from the colonies, as well as eggs, whose whites were used to dye clothes, and yolks were used to make host or dough. . “Ordinary” desserts (created within monasteries and convents) have been a Portuguese specialty since the 15th century. He recalled a few pastries with obvious national gastronomy origins: barriga de freira (“nuns’ belly”) or pudim das Clarissas (“Poor Clares’ flank”)… But none of them became popular. A small pancake known today by the common name of pastel de nata. Literally “cream cake”.

When Domingo Rafael Alves owns the pastel de nata recipe

Paradoxically, the dough invented by the monks of Belem achieved its first success in an era marked by virulent anticlericalism. In 1815, the country was devastated by the wars it had waged with the British against the Napoleonic armies. Worse: in the absence of the royal family, who were refugees in Brazil, the country found itself under British rule.

But in 1820, the Liberal Revolution, which resulted from an army revolt supported by the people, succeeded in driving out the British invaders. A military junta brought King João VI back from exile, established a parliamentary monarchy, freed the press… and banned the Inquisition, paving the way for anti-religious policies inspired by French revolutionary ideas. Liberals who came to power in 1834 after the civil war against the supporters of royal absolutism suppressed religious orders and confiscated their property, especially monasteries. In Belem, the Hieronymite brothers were therefore forced to sell their liturgical items and even their clothes… And according to legend, one of them managed to sell the recipe for a small cream pie in 1837 to a certain Domingo Rafael Alves. the owner of a nearby sugar factory.

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Pasteis des nata, pastel de Belém, Portuguese egg cake… Portuguese icon

Since then, the secret has been passed down from generation to generation: only six people – three descendants of Alves and three master pastry chefs – know the original recipe and have given a written promise never to reveal it. The Pastel de Belém appellation has been protected since 1911. “A nice marketing move,” points out food writer Thiago Martins. Because today, in a blind tasting, who can distinguish pastel de Belém from other pasteis de nata? Probably no one. No matter: the dough has become a national symbol. It has also gained an almost worldwide reputation through advertising campaigns. Popularized in Asia through the former colony of Macao (Southern China), it is there called Portuguese egg cake, “Portuguese egg cake”. And now fast-food chains offer it as a dessert in Europe, Taiwan and Brazil.

Diaspora Portuguese are rediscovering the taste of their homeland by biting into this pastry. Lisbon-style Proust Madeleine. It is also an instrument of soft power. Pasteis were presented to diplomats invited to Jeronimos Monastery in June 1985, when Mario Soares’ government signed the country’s entry into the European Union. On May 9, 2006, they became Portugal’s signature at the “Café Europe” event, where each country showcased its specialties. During the Universal Exhibition in Dubai (October 2021-March 2022), 900,000 of them were eaten by visitors to the Lusitanian pavilion.

Their ubiquity sometimes provokes ridicule and irritation. In 1945, the poet Miguel Torga was angry with his contemporaries: “We live in a world of peace, where vaccinated pets live and whose dogs grind pate. Closer to home, in June 2015, on the occasion of the death of the great filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, the national press reminded us that Portugal is not limited to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and these tarts. “But if we convince Ronaldo to take a picture of him eating pastel de nata [la star du ballon rond est connue pour observer un régime alimentaire draconien] and since we have published this picture, the sweet combination will have unexpected consequences for the Portuguese GDP, “we read in the daily Diário de Noticias. An impossible miracle. A little like the incredible fate of a small cream bread born in the silence of a monastery.

Article published in a journal GEO Histoire September-October 2022 (n°65, Portugal).

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