I recently returned from vacation in Portugal. It was a wonderful trip visiting with family in Cascais, a beautiful sea-side town outside of Lisbon. We spent a lot of time on the beach, shopping, touring castles, and eating. Oh, the food was good! And the Portuguese are quite proud of their food. They truly enjoy eating, too. No dieting here, as illustrated by this bag I spotted in a boutique in Lisbon. Most people also appeared to be at a healthy weight. They’re on to something, I think.
Portugal is known for its pastries, and the most popular of all is Pasteis de Nata. These are luscious Portuguese custard tarts made with flaky puff pastry and baked until the top is distinctly brown. Here’s how Portugal Daily View described the pastries:
A few years ago, Killian Fox, from “The Observer”, roamed the globe with a few top experts in world cuisine in search of the best delicacies. And guess what? Among 50 other best things to eat, the pastéis de Belém were listed in 15th place with this description: “Creamy, flaky custard tarts – served warm with cinnamon – are one of Portugal’s great culinary gifts to the world.”
Like many of the pastries, these tarts were perfectly portioned so you weren’t eating a super-sized sweet. People were satisfied with just one, and they’re commonly eaten in the morning with coffee. You can find a recipe for Pasteis de Nata at Leite’s Culinaria.
During our trip, we visiting a pastry shop called Pasteis de Belem that first created the custard tarts over 100 years ago and it’s still the most famous place to enjoy these treats.
The lines were long and the place was bustling, but I was determined to get a taste of the pastries fresh out of the oven. I loved David Leite’s description of his visit, “In Search of a Portuguese Legend.”
Nearby is a pastry shop called the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, home to what is arguably the Holy Grail of Portuguese sweets: pastéis de Belém, the recipe for which has been a secret for centuries. This adoration of the pastéis is easy to understand after you’ve taken a bite. The confection’s shell is made from massa folhada, Portugal’s equivalent to France’s puff pastry. It spirals up, creating a nest of hundreds of crisp layers. Inside is a luscious, warm custard.
The proximity of the monastery to the bakery is no accident. Until the 19th century, monasteries were Portugal’s research, trade, horticultural, and confectionary epicenters, around which rose small businesses. Originally, lay bakers made the pastéis behind the Jerónimos walls and sold them to the public. A revolution in the early 1800s shuttered the monasteries, which gave Domingo Rafael Alves, an enterprising Portuguese from Brazil, the opportunity to buy the recipe from a desperate out-of-work baker. In 1837, production of the pastéis resumed in Alves’ nearby sundries shop, and soon he scuttled the rest of his inventory to specialize in them.
“It’s still the same recipe,” said Pedro Clarinha, current owner of the confeitaria and a descendant of Alves. “Only three people in the world know it.”
Security is tight at Antigua Confeitaria. Master bakers make the custard and dough in a locked room, and not even the women who sit a few feet away tucking spirals of dough into small, flared baking tins know what goes on in that room…Clarinha’s family registered the name in 1911 to assure that only pastries that come out their ovens can be called pastéis de Belém. Generic, and often anemic, imitations can be had elsewhere under the name pastéis de nata, custard pastries.
Read more from David Leite.
Another traditional and signature Portuguese pastry is called Queijadas, made famous in the picturesque mountain town of Sintra, which we visited on one of the days of our trip. Queijadas start with a thin and flaky crust, which is then filled with a mixture of flour, sugar, egg yolk, fresh cheese (quejio fresco) and cinnamon. If you’re interested in making at home, check out this recipe or this recipe.
I loved these pastries because they were not overly sweet.
The name of these pastries comes from its shape, similar to a travesseiro (pillow in English). They are made of puff pastry filled with an egg and almond cream, sprinkled with sugar.
It was cherry season during our visit — so we saw lots of fresh cherries, which was a common dessert after dinner (another healthy habit — having fruit for dessert). Portugal is also famous for a liqueor made from sour cherries called ginja, which is sold in a variety of decorative bottles (heavily promoted to tourists) and served as a shot in a chocolate shot glass. Lupini beans were a popular snack with a drink before dinner. I became hooked on these legumes – which are also frequently eaten in Italy and the Middle East. And of course, the pastries and bread were amazing.
Throughout the trip, we enjoyed lots of seafood, including fresh sardines — something Portugal is known for. Since we stayed in a town by the coast, of course seafood is plentiful. But throughout Portugal, there’s a lot more seafood eaten than in the U.S. The Portuguese have no trouble meeting the seafood twice-a-week guideline — something that’s still a struggle for most Americans.
I also tried barnacles. Not sure I want to seek out these sea creatures (arthropods) any time soon, although they’re quite the delicacy. Related to crabs and lobsters, barnacles are known for attaching themselves to ships and other structures in the ocean. I first learned about them in Australia, and got to try them again in Portugal.
It seems Portuguese food is going to be having its moment. New York chef George Mendes will soon be publishing a cookbook called My Portugal, which looks fantastic. So expect to be hearing more about Portuguese food in the future.
I’m sure grateful I got to experience it first hand.