I was around 8 years old sat in a shoddy Nandos down in Bexleyheath, where I semi-grew up, when I tasted my first ever Pastel de Nata. My Dad, always insisting on getting the works when we visited, never dismissed adding a Nata or two to the order. It was a little treat after stuffing our faces with questionable amounts of chicken, pitta bread and bottomless fizzy drinks.
I know Nando’s is probably an insult to the Portuguese (is it?) and the idea of someone trying their first Nata in one of their restaurants (questionable term) must banish them from some part of Portugal. But if it means eating their gorgeous pastries and facing the consequences, so be it.
What is a Nata?
A Pastel de Nata is the ultimate coffee companion for those with the sweetest teeth (and for those without).
It is a crispy, caramelised flaky pastry cup, filled with the sweetest custard, burnt slightly on the top to create a bite-sized delicious treat.
The dessert originated in 18th-century Portugal at the Jerónimos Monastery in Santa Maria de Belém. Due to a laundry detergent shortage, where the locals, mostly nuns, would use egg white as a way to starch their clothing.
As a result, the copious amounts of egg yolks were put to incredibly good use by the monks, creating the Pastel de Nata. (Theculturetrip.com)
On a recent dreamy trip to the Algarve, Portugal’s gorgeous South coast, I was determined to find the sweetest and most caramelised Nata to compliment the cinnamon-topped cappuccinos that kept mysteriously ending up on our table.
Beach Cafe – Praia de Marinha
After a long, hard day of doing absolutely nothing on a sunny beach, we headed for a pit stop before walking back to the paradise suite we called home for a week.
This would be the first Nata of the trip.
Sandy hands reached for the small delight and filled a hole that was created while bobbing mindlessly in fresh Atlantic waters.
It tops the Nandos Nata immediately, and I see nothing but flakes of gold for the next 2 minutes crumble onto my saucer before me. If this is what you get from a tourist-trapped beach bar, what are the freshly baked like?
Fábrica Velha Homemade Bakery – Carvoeiro
While excitedly scanning the town of the day through an Uber window, whizzing past shops flogging tourists merch and ’boutique jewellery’, as well as spotting some strangely named bars, I saw exactly where I would taste the ultimate Nata.
The Fábrica Velha Homemade Bakery has a long line and is obviously the place to be for any sort of freshly made, oven-ready goods. The Natas are piled high alongside doughnuts and fresh cream cakes. before I get to the till, I know this is going to be a very sweet moment.
We are sitting on the balcony in the 26-degree heat, cappuccinos in hand and plates filled with Natas. After a quick prod and a small squeeze, it’s clear the bakers knew what they were doing when they created these sumptuous treats. The crunch of the first bite is complemented so sharply by the burnt sugar on top of the custard filling. The many layers of the outer casing are immaculate and hold the Nata together for an undisturbed glutinous experience. The custard, oh sweet vanilla custard, is just the right texture and sweetness to make even the most miserable able to kick in a smile. Paired with a cinnamon stick-topped cappuccino, it is a good day to be sitting in a Portuguese bakery.
Benjamim Cafe – Ferragudo
In the quiet town of Ferragudo, not far from our home base of Benegil, we sit in the Benjamim Cafe and it is peaceful.
The Benjamim Cafe sits just outside the main square and has a chic style to it. The glass-sheltered cakes are what catch my eye on our first lap of the town, and after trekking up steep cobbled streets, it is nice to sit down and watch others notice the cafe too.
The waiter is very kind and takes pride in what is served. I watch as he cleans the glass until it is pristine. He perfects the pork sandwich and chips that were order alongside the coffee and Natas.
The Nata from Benjamim Cafe is creamy and crisp as you’d expect, but the extra care from the staff makes it that little bit sweeter.
Looking back at trying the Portuguese desserts, it is noted that while exceeding expectations, it’s always the company, surroundings and relaxation that make it such a blissful moment to enjoy. Even in a shoddy Nandos, these small treats make a moment that little bit better, in Portugal or not.
Images owned by Drew-Alexandra O'Keeffe