The first time I knowingly ate a Portuguese egg tart, or pastel de nata, was in the Dim Sum Chinese restaurant on Sheffield’s London Road. As a life-long lover of the noble English custard tart I was intrigued. It was good but different.
The Chinese link is not an attempt to be jokey. The Portuguese, who are good at baking, took their tarts to Macau, an enclave on the coast of China which they once ruled. The Chinese, who had little tradition of baking , rather liked them. Macau is not far from Hong Kong and the tarts soon appeared there. It’s not the only thing the Portuguese gave to Asia, bequeathing tempura batter to the Japanese.
Portuguese tarts are relatively new here but I’m told you can find half a dozen stalls selling them on London’s Borough Market, where food trends start. You can even get them in Sheffield.
A Portuguese egg tart is not much of a looker. It’s a dumpy little thing with black blotches on the top but don’t be deceived. As with women, it’s a case of once bitten, forever smitten. They were created by Portuguese monks who used egg whites for starching clothes and turned the unwanted yolks into tarts.
Roses the Bakers have been selling them, alongside traditional custard tarts, for about a year. An assistant told me they were very popular, at just 80p each. They are a hefty £1.20 at Forge Bakehouse on Abbeydale Road and there’s a Chinese bloke called Chris Wong baking them every day on the Moor Market for 98p each. Cake-R-Us on London Road sells them for £1.
This blog spares no expense so first I went to Portugal to see what they should be like before I tested the home grown variety. All right, I was going to Lisbon anyway.
You can’t walk more than 50 yards without finding a café or pasteleria selling them. I must have had a dozen, not counting one I mistakenly ordered from a late night kiosk, after a bottle of vinho verde, which turned out to be a mini cheese and ham quiche.
A pastel de nata is everything an English custard is not. For a start there’s the pastry, slightly damp shortcrust for the Anglo tart, crisp and flaky for the Portuguese. Then there’s the filling. The custard tart is light and wobbly, getting on for a creme brule, the Portuguese filling is creamy with the consistency of lemon curd.
The English tart has a dusting of nutmeg on top. There is no nutmeg but often cinnamon and lemon in the pastel de nata although to be honest I failed to detect any cinnamon in those I ate in Lisbon but I did vanilla. The pastel de nata is everywhere. It’s not the only Portuguese pastry but as I was on an egg tart quest it was about the only one I tried. Not that I wasn’t tempted.
It’s caramelisation of the filling surface which causes the blotches and a tricky thing to get right. The Portuguese say if it ain’t got blotches it ain’t a proper one. Mind you, things can be taken too far. One I bought from a stall in the Mercado da Ribeira food hall was brown all the way down and unexciting.
The best I had was in the Café Suica in the Baixa, a wonderful little gem of a tart, light and creamy filling contrasting with crisp, flaky pastry. And they weren’t bad at the Hotel Britania either.
I put on a couple of pounds but I reckon I am now a good judge. So what to make of them back home? The Roses version was a brave try. The pastry was thicker and stodgier than in Lisbon and the filling not as deep. And it was sadly blotch-free. There wasn’t much of the filling but it was closest to the Portuguese. The tart at Cake-R-Us was unexciting.
The Forge’s tart has a fine pastry and plenty of spots but the filling, which is made with milk rather than cream, is wobbly, far closer to an English custard tart. Again, I found the cinnamon used in this recipe hard to detect. Lemon zest is also used. My verdict: jolly decent but a little pricy (they cost a euro in Lisbon).
On the Moor Market Chris Wong of CakeLicious bakes 120 tarts a day on his stall. “This could be the best Portuguese custard tart you have ever tasted” says the publicity and customers, English and Chinese, were queuing up to agree with him. “They’re lovely,” said a woman buying two, like me.
Chris, who has been in the market since it opened and exhibited his tarts at last year’s Sheffield Food Festival, said they were best straight out of the oven and allowed to cool for 10 minutes but eaten warm and invited me to wait. He wasn’t giving away any recipe secrets but reckoned if the tops had a shine (like his) it was a good sign.
When cool his tarts had great crisp pastry and an excellent blotchy filling, although again it was closer to the English rather than Portuguese. I couldn’t taste any cinnamon again. “That’s because I didn’t put any in. My customers don’t like it,” he said. There is, though, some vanilla.
Chris refuses to taste rival tarts because “I don’t want to be influenced.” Despite what he said, I enjoyed it even more when cold. It was certainly the best of the English bunch. Now form an orderly queue . . .
SheffieldCakeLicious on Facebook or tel: 07919 340 341.
Forge Bakehouse, 232 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, S7 1FL. Tel 0114 258 8987. Web: http://www.forgebakehouse.co.uk
UPDATE: Since this article was written I have tried the pastel de nata from Cossack Cuisine, which had a stall at Nether Edge Farmers’ Market. They cost £1.40 but are the nearest in taste and texture to those in Lisbon. Web: http://www.cossackcuisine.com