Our love affair with the most scrumptious pastry on the planet began in an unlikely place – Old Crow. One dark night, during the tenth day of -40C, the most northerly community in the Yukon provided the impetus for this tantalizing discovery.
My friend, this strange guy who doesn’t believe in seasons, was searching the net, looking for that ideal geographic location on the planet: not too cold, not too rainy, nor sweltering hot. His research unearthed Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, boasting the most moderate climate in the world: 20C year round.
Fast forward to five years later and my friend from Old Crow has moved to Dawson City and we are about to embark on a European winter vacation together. I suggest Belgium where my brother and his family live. After four years in Old Crow, for obvious reasons, my partner craves the sun in January. Madeira is calling him so we decide on a Belgium-Portugal combo.
Our flight to Madeira includes a stop in Porto, a city in northern Portugal famous not for madeira, but for port. It is here that we first discover the heavenly custard tart that goes by the name pastel de nata.
On a peaceful Porto portal, in a colourless but cute café offering only a couple of tables and a long counter, encased in a small glass display alongside the omnipresent Portuguese Super Bock beer tap, appeared a modest assortment of pastries. Indeed at this moment, we succumbed to our mutual love of all things custard. The beer was beer, but the custard tarts verged on perfection: not too sweet, a light and crispy shell, subtle scents of cinnamon and cardamom – three or four bites of pure bliss. To our delight pasteis de nata were as popular and as exquisite on Madeira as in Porto.
Two years later we made a second trip to Porto to walk 250 kilometres of the lesser-known Portuguese Camino. (Many people don’t realize there many Caminos, or paths, to Santiago de Compestela in Spain, the most famous being the Camino Frances from Fr ance to Santiago.) Our route took us through the most picturesque Portuguese countryside and it was rare to find even the smallest of villages that did not serve pasteis de nata. This sublime snack, coupled with a poignant Portuguese espresso, fueled many a mile of our journey.
We have just returned from our third embrace with Portugal, which we now refer to as the land of the perfect snack. En route we paused in Barcelona to visit my daughter, Amy, and her partner Andy. Not surprisingly, in the city of tapas, we soon found ourselves in a discussion about food. We mentioned our eager anticipation of the sublime, but underrated, Portuguese tarts. It was at that juncture that Andy became animated and told us about a (in his words) life-changing event he had experienced in Portugal. He’d taken a trip to Belem, a small town near Lisbon where the pastel de nata originated. He explained that the tarts first emerged from a monastery in the town of Belem in 1837. At that time in history monasteries were losing their support from the government, so the monks needed to find a way to continue to make a living. Egg whites were used to starch the monks’ clothes, thus leaving a surplus of egg yolks. Enter the first creative batch of Pasteis de Belem, as they were first called. To this day the monastery guards the secret recipe, although many variations exist in Portugal and other parts of Europe. Pasteis de natas even spread to the Portuguese owned island of Macau off the coast of Hong Kong, and a version became a mainstay of the traditional Chinese dim sum meal.
We are not the only ones who treasure this dessert. In a 2009 survey of the best foods in the world (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/13/best-foods-in-the-world) the Manchester Guardian ranked it 15th, a mere 13 or 14 places below its deserved spot. Moreover, in Portugal they now have cafés serving only pasteis de nata and espresso; why would you serve anything else?
On our most recent trip, after a lingering visit to Porto’s Libaria Lello (which rightly claims to be the most beautiful bookstore in the world), we felt a little peckish and headed to the adjoining cafe for – that’s right – a pastel de nata and an espresso. A warm batch was at-that-minute coming out of the oven. Now, some people go on pilgrimages to find enlightenment. Eldo and I found it right there, in that little café the moment our taste buds embraced the warm, superb custard of those humble, yet divine tarts.
During this last visit to Portugal, we began walking south from the Spanish-Portuguese border – this time toward Fatima. During the first part of the trip we retraced our steps walking in the opposite direction through the same scenic landscape and villages, even staying at some of the same hotels and meeting the same friendly proprietors we’d met the first two trips. I was starting to feel that perhaps I’d done Portugal and it might be time to try another country.
However, now that I’m back in the Yukon I have been obsessing about custard tarts. I have tried several times to replicate the recipe with limited success. I think possibly one more Portuguese trip is in order, and maybe to Belem this time.