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Portuguese custard tarts - evolution

"The Portuguese pastel de nata are so wonderful that it is almost pointless trying to replicate, let alone better them." Jeremy Lee - The Guardian

Back in the time of lockdown, for one of my Zoom cooking classes with the grandchildren, we made some Portuguese custard tarts à la Jamie Oliver. I had been inspired to make these by this rather enticing photograph that I found in his The Return of the Naked Chef - his second book written way back in the year 2000. I say à la Jamie Oliver because what we made was actually a sort of amalgam of two or three different versions of his recipe that you will find if you search online. The version in my book (I think it had been a lucky dip book, which is why I was looking at it) was somewhat more complicated than the last version he has offered shown on the video below and dated 2014. And in between there have been a couple of variations.

Which is interesting because it shows how recipes are never a static thing. The very first version, is from his original book The Naked Chef and is very similar to the one that I found. I do not have the original book, but the website that has this recipe says that it is from that book. In that and the version in his second book he is somewhat more cheffy than he is these days. The pastry cases are formed around upturned glasses which is rather more fiddly than using a muffin tray, and the custard is a cooked custard that then fills the custard cases and is left to set, rather than making a quiche like custard and cooking this in the tarts. The custard is also much richer as it is with 6 eggs, rather than the one he uses in his video. There is also honey and vanilla pods whose seeds have been scraped out for the custard. Plus when he prepares the pastry he tells us to "brush with the egg yolk and scatter the rest of the ingredients (sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon) over, being subtle with the nutmeg and cinnamon." In fact these tarts are most probably fairly near to an 'authentic' recipe.

By the time he makes his 'Quick version' fourteen years later he is not as subtle with the cinnamon and there is no sugar or honey in the custard. But there is orange in the caramel on top. Actually the recipe this link takes you to is also not quite the same as the video - which I think is based on a recipe in 30 Minute Meals. When we made our version I combined a few things - kept the sugar sprinkled over the pastry - with the cinnamon and rather more generously - as in the video - and added honey to the custard mixture. They were very yummy.

But of course the recipe raised the ire of many:

"Those tarts may be delicious, but calling it portuguese custard tarts is a bit like saying my grandma is the queen of England just because she's an old lady..."

It's just one of the generally derogatory comments you will find on YouTube under the video, so it was nice to see this one too:

"The point of Jamie Oliver's program is that he takes popular recipes and simplifies them so they take less time and people watching are more likely to actually cook something new. The 'authentic' recipe for pastéis de nata is more complex and takes a lot longer, so a lot of people don't have the time or simply can't do it. It might be a bit cheeky to call them Portuguese tarts, but it's just a way to get people interested in cooking. If you want a perfect recipe go to another channel and get ready to spend triple the time cooking."

Indeed, indeed say I and it is interesting to see how Jamie evolved from an enthusiastic young chef - yes he is a properly trained chef - to someone who is just trying to get everyone and particularly the unconfident cook to have a go. I think his experiences with Fifteen and with the whole school dinner thing made him wake up to the fact that you couldn't make complicated stuff interesting for those who just didn't cook.

So what is an authentic pastéis de nata (which by the way just means pastry cream)? It originated in a monastery in Belém, which I think must be a part of greater Lisbon - the Mosteirodeos Jerónimos (Heironymites monastery) back in the 17th century. It is said that the idea for the tarts came from the fact that egg whites were used in the starching of their clothes, and this was a way of using up all of the egg yolks. When in the early nineteenth century the monks found themselves in danger of being closed down for economic reasons, they hit upon the idea of selling their tarts. They were very successful but even so they were closed down in 1834, though not before selling their recipe and equipment to the Fabrica pastéis de Belém - a family owned business. It still operates today and is still owned by the same family. The website has a rather cute looking video about the history but alas the narration is in Portuguese, so it's not really very useful. It is now a major tourist attraction of course, and churns out some 22,000 hand-made tarts like these above, every day - up to 50,00 in the summer season.

On the website Leite's Culinaria David Leite tells the whole history and also provides a recipe which he says approximates the real deal. For as he says:

"There are all kinds of reasons why the original pastéis de nata from this pastry shop are so freaking good. Secret recipes, teams of folks who do nothing but make the pastry dough or whip up the filling, ovens that blast at 800°F."

So critics of Jamie et al. take that. His version looks pretty similar.

But if you are not a Jamie fan here are two other versions - one from Bill Granger and another one from Taste, which I think is probably just a Coles Magazine recipe. Near enough is good enough sometimes. No caramel topping on either by the looks of things, so probably more authentic.

Because Jamie gets his burnt looking topping from caramel - orange flavoured in his later version, just plain caramel in the first, but I think the burnt look on the more 'authentic' offerings is just part of the cooking process.

Portuguese custard tarts were a really, really big thing some years back. They still are popular, but have perhaps settled into generally accepted normality rather than the latest must have. I tried to find out why they were quite so big, and the closest explanation I have found is that the Portuguese government in days of real economic strife around the time of the GFC decided to export to the world their treasured tarts. An article on the Bloomberg website tells how part of this push was the establishment of the Nata Pura company by one Mabilio de Albuquerque with backing from the government, which now ships all over the world. Part of the popularity may also have come from the increasing popularity of Lisbon as a top tourist destination - probably also a government aided target.

But the export of this humble but delicious delicacy goes back much further than that. Portugal as you know was a major colonial power and along with their soldiers they brought their food to places like Brazil - and Macau, where the Portuguese custard tart is huge - thanks in large part to an Englishman called Andrew Stow, who had fallen in love with the tart and set up Lord Stow's Bakery there, purely to make Portuguese custard tarts. Of course he did not have the 'secret' recipe and so his, like Jamie's, is a variation - apparently slightly different pastry, eggier and less sweet. It is so popular though that it has become a tourist attraction in itself. The BBC has an interesting article about it. The Portuguese were also in the Guangzhou province in 1513, and they too have a version.

But the Portuguese were not the only people to export custard tarts to their colonies. The British did too. The English custard tart - which can admittedly be pretty bland, can also be a thing of beauty and glory. The British chef Marcus Wareing has won various awards with his version shown below and it's really not that complicated to make. The nutmeg is vital and the filling of what is usually one large tart rather than small ones, is thick and wobbly. Delia also has a recipe and a website called Macheesmo hosts a recipe from Paul Hollywood for little ones. The pastry is short crust rather than puff or flaky but the filling is similar to the Portuguese versions, if somewhat smoother and deeper. They also date back much further in time - to medieval times, and it is likely that they in turn influenced the Portuguese.

And in Hong Kong - and other parts of China too - the English version has taken root and been made Chinese. You can find them in any Chinese restaurant. The Woks of Life website has a recipe for Hong Kong egg tarts. I have to say that of all the different version these look the plainest and the least tempting - no spicy or sugary topping and they are somehow more curd like than custard like.

So to all the Jamie naysayers I say that he is just doing what everybody does. Takes a recipe and makes it his own, passes it on to somebody else who tweaks it a bit more until eventually you have something quite different. That's how food evolves.


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