Three days tromping around Lisbon seeing the sights and eating rich Portuguese pastries was the first phase of my Camino training program. It may have been a little late in the process and unorthodox but three days of climbing the steep stone streets of Lisbon from the Alfama on the Tejo River to Saint George Castle and up another notch to the high Alto neighborhood will change you. It will make you sweat like a horse, huff and puff like a fairy tale character and cause you to give malicious looks to cruise ship passengers touring the city effortlessly in tuk-tuks. Portuguese pastries will help restore your sanity.
In Lisbon and in every other town, village or bend in the road I visited in Portugal I found delicious, egg based pastries filled with peach or custard and if it was topped with chocolate it was the close-your-eyes, melt-in-your-mouth type. I don’t care much for chocolate normally, but that may be because most of the chocolate I’ve tasted on pastries in America looks like plastic and tastes like plumbers’ candles. I never tasted anything nasty like that in Portugal. Even in the smokey bars that turned into cafes for just a few hours each morning the pastries were divine.
It’s said that Portugal’s heavy use of eggs in pastries is religious based and there seems to be some truth to it. In the past nuns used egg whites to starch their habits and the monks used egg whites to clarify their wines, which resulted in happy monks and a lot of left over egg yolks in the kitchens of convents and monasteries. The monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem created a custard tart with their egg yolks and it has essentially become the national pastry. In Belem they call the tarts ‘Pasties de Belem’ in the rest of the country they call them ‘Pasties de Nata’. In the 1830’s the monks sold their recipe to a baker down the street and today that same family owned bakery is serving those tarts warm from the oven. The crust is flakey and about the size of your palm and filled with egg custard. With baking the surface of the custard turns golden and crusty with patches of black, but the black does not taste burnt. On each table are two large shakers, one filled with cinnamon, the other with powdered sugar, you are encouraged to use them to dress your tart. No matter what city you start your Camino Portuguese in you will see Pasties de Natas. I encourage you to try one, especially in the last few miles of your day, when your energy is waning, your feet are aching and the voice in your head won’t stop asking, “Are you insane?”