If you’ve ever had a bite of a custard tart, you know what the fuss is about. A soft and sweet filling encased in a crumbly pastry makes up the pastel de nata (which translates to “cream cake”), Portugal’s most popular sweet. Also called Portuguese custard tart, the existence of the pastel de nata can be traced to before 300 years. The sweet treat has religious roots. Catholic nuns and monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, west Lisbon, used egg whites to starch their clothes as laundry detergent wasn’t available. This resulted in a lot of egg yolks to spare, which were used to make desserts to avoid waste.

The monastery’s monks mastered a secret recipe for perfect custard tarts. They then sold the tarts to generate income to support the monastery. The monastery shut down in 1834, and the recipe was sold to the proprietors of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém is a bakery-cafe that opened in 1837 and is Lisbon’s most well known place for custard tarts. The recipe is still a closely guarded secret even today, and the tarts made and sold at this bakery in Belém are called Pastéis de Belém. 

English-style egg tarts have existed since medieval times. Known as doucets or darioles back then, they were on the menu at the coronation banquet of Henry IV in 1399. The Portuguese custard tart is different from these and also Chinese egg tarts. Although it’s native to Portugal, it can now be found across the world, especially Portuguese-influenced areas like Macau and Brazil. 

In the Azores region in Portugal, the pastéis de nata are called queijadas. Every region and subsequent baker in Portugal has their own take on the original recipe for these tarts, but they remain consistent in their power to draw people in. Locals enjoy them with espressos and some can even be spotted using their coffee spoons to spoon custard into their mouths. 

If you’re in Lisbon, find pastéis de nata at Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém or at one of the stalls at the Time Out Market.