I had eaten custard tarts before: in the English teashops of my childhood, those purveyors of luridly coloured Battenberg cake and grinning gingerbread men. Some were rather good – eggy and crumbly, with an exotic whiff of nutmeg; others were as desiccated as the blizzard of coconut on the macaroons.
The first bite of a pastel de nata, however – at a Portuguese café in Notting Hill, London – was a revelation. The custard was voluptuously rich, blistered black from the oven, and the pastry crackled divinely. Their spiritual home, I discovered, was the Pastéis de Belém bakery next to the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, the riverside district of Lisbon named after Bethlehem.
It seemed a suitable place for a pilgrimage. Belém has museums and galleries, the late gothic monastery itself, and the imposing Belém Tower.
I wasn’t the only worshipper, as was evident from the takeaway queue. I took a seat in the handsome café, with its navy awnings and its walls gleaming with azulejo (blue and white glazed tiles), and ordered a brace of pastel de nata (these are not just generic egg tarts). Moments later, they arrived, still warm, oven-scorched, dusted with cinnamon. I ordered two more before I had finished my coffee: my waiter told me that the shop makes 20,000 tarts every day, each a textural masterpiece: soft and brittle, sweet and fragrant.
The Portuguese have a great reputation as sailors and explorers – many voyages started from the Belém Tower – and the pastel de nata has travelled far and wide, too: to Brazil, Goa, Macau, even to Notting Hill; but, for the true devotee, Belém is the home where the tart is.
Bill Knott is a London-based journalist who writes about food for the Financial Times
Cathay Pacific flies codeshare to Lisbon