Confessions of a nata addict

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on July 20, 2018 Published on July 20, 2018

Puff piece: The recipe for the pastéis de nata is said to have been sold to a family of bakers in Lisbon by a monk from the city’s Belém district   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

A popular Portuguese egg tart pastry helps a reluctant dessert-eater find her sweet tooth

The first time I bit into the rich, creamy belly of a pastéis de nata I was hungry enough to feast on dry bread. A 22-km hike — along the Fisherman’s Trail in rural southern Portugal — had drained my husband and me of every drop of energy. The charm of the bucolic scenes around us had paled before the pangs that emanated from the gut. We finished the day’s hike at the sleepy town of Zambujeira do Mar in the Alentejo region, where we were to spend the night before continuing on the trail for the next three days. It was just past 4.30 in the afternoon — an inconvenient hour when it’s too late for lunch and way too early for dinner, especially in a place that’s still spared the 24X7 demands of urban living. So when we spotted an empty café, we went right in and ordered all that was available — sardine paté with bread and beer. As I looked up from my plate to catch a breath, my eyes met my husband’s. We were in agreement that our growling bellies needed more filling.

I went sniffing around for the menu to the countertop — the elderly gentleman running the café had popped inside to watch television. And it was then that I spotted these golden, oven-fresh egg tarts in the glass case, their caramelised tops with dark spots glistening in the late afternoon sunlight that filtered in through the window in the west.

Desserts have always been a tricky pick for me — being Bengali, I have been branded a traitor for shunning rosogolla and payesh (rice pudding). My outraged mother, who still insists on nurturing a sweet tooth her daughter hasn’t quite grown, says that you can’t get sick from anything you love. And I think of the obese American kids who must truly love their cheeseburgers. As I let the gooey, sweet custard collapse in my mouth, I felt a bit like a fraud for enjoying a dessert.

The feeling didn’t last more than a few seconds. I decided my mother won’t know about my pastéis de nata affair. As we progressed along the 50-km trail under a hot sun, the salty breeze from the Atlantic in our faces, I kept thinking about our stop at the next town and, eventually, the nata. I kept up my pace along the difficult sandy trail as the day grew hotter, in the belief that my struggle will have its reward. By day three, a dozen nataslater, I accepted, on my husband’s insistence, that I was an addict. A nata addict. But that wasn’t what worried the spouse. He had misgivings about our arrival in Lisbon. A dessert overdose was imminent.

Lisbon turned out to be a revelation. Fresh-off-the-oven pastéis de natas in bakeries and cafés all over Chiado district came with a shot of bica, the local espresso. The nata enjoys cult status in Portugal, especially Lisbon. It travelled with Portuguese voyagers and colonisers across continents, and stayed on in some places with the immigrant population. Between eating the deliciously soft and satisfying egg tarts and watching out for the rusty canary-yellow trams hurtling down the hilly district, I wondered why I hadn’t found the nata in Goa.

Pastéis de Belém, a family-run bakery in Lisbon’s Belém district, has been making these egg tarts since 1837. During peak tourist season, it sells more than 20,000 natas a day. The Belém nata is said to be the best in the world, the distinguishing feature being the low-on-sugar, crisp puff pastry that cradles the yellow, eggy custard. The bakery also adds a sprinkling of cinnamon and icing sugar to make its nata stand out. Locals say that the recipe was sold to the family by a monk from Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém. And how did the monk come by the recipe? From experimenting with egg yolks that were discarded after the whites were used to starch habits and clarify local wines.

At the Lisbon airport, I watched my husband’s eyes widen as he saw me pile souvenir nata packs from Belém. I was so painfully aware of not having immediate access to the dessert after leaving Portuguese soil that I thought, like all addicts, hoarding was the only option. But carry-on baggage has its limits. Luckily, I’ve discovered a Portuguese bakery in Geneva this past month that sells decent natas. They may not be the devilishly good ones from Belém, but they’ll do for a fix.

Debashree Majumdar is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Geneva

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Published on July 20, 2018
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