A Few Words About a Pastel de Nata

About a week and a half ago, I found myself wandering the hilly avenues of Lisbon, snapping, ‘gramming and ‘fbing the experience, and waiting for suggestions from my social media network about how to spend 22 hours in the Portuguese capital. I got some great recommendations, which was pretty cool. The poll function on Instagram stories also allowed me to ask friends to vote on what I should do and, since I had absolutely 0 prior plans or priorities, I based my day on the outcome of those polls. At one point the choices were “tourism or pastéis de nata” and the poll almost unanimously favored the former. So I bopped around for a while until I happened upon one location of the La Fábrica de Nata chain.

Granted, I didn’t have to look too hard to find it. This massive cafe and bakery is located in Praça dos Restauradores in a much visited part of the city, across from palaces and museums and such. Although I was first quite hesitant to enter such a touristy-looking spot, I quickly came to realize that it’s the type of place that is touristy for also being a respected local establishment. In other words, not necessarily created for tourists to lead them off the noble quest for anything on this continent that has managed to remain authentic over the past few decades. And would I deny a chance to indulge in a slice of heavenly Eszterhazy or Zserbo in Budapest’s emblematic Cafe Gerbeaud, just because there are a few Germans noshing on Sachertorte there? No. Would I say no to a light green box of multicolored macarons from Ladurée in Paris just because literally everyone in there is a tourist? Of course not. So, I got over my tourist-trap-phobia and waltzed on in.

On the right, a long glass counter awaits, with what looks like hundreds of pastéis (all fresh!) lined up and waiting to be enjoyed. There are also some other tasty treats, including savory snacks to indulge in before the obligatory pastel de nata and coffee. On the left, a glass wall separating off an open (well, visible) kitchen where a mustachioed Portuguese man is busy moving around big mold trays of pastry from one oven to another, surveying the surface to see if they’re ready and pulling them out to cool when they are. Hanging from the ceiling is a rail across which the mold trays roll, descending down into the oven room to be filled and baked. It seems they churn out hundreds of pastéis de nata per hour, so I’m sure they also do catering or sell the stuff off-premise. And I don’t know about those, but the hot ones – fresh out of the oven and available at the counter – are simply amazing. 

It’s a no-brainer type amazing, the type absolutely no one in this world could resist. The density and heft when you pick up the thing is a great preview of the texture in mouth. First, that sinful crunch, as the impossibly flaky, sandy crust shatters into crisp shards. Then the warm, yolky custard floods your palate, coating your tongue with its luscious, creamy texture, the floral sweetness of vanilla waking up all nearby neurons, which fire away vigorously endless messages of sheer pleasure to the brain. It’s so rich, so indulgent and so absolutely perfect warm, that I’m pretty sure I could have an arm chopped off while eating one and I wouldn’t notice until after. It’s dense but small, and it disappears in 3-4 bites, leaving me to ponder having another.

Instead I had one of these, a pastel de bacalhau (a.k.a bolinho de bacalhau). This is a croquette made with a mixture of potato, codfish, egg, onion and some parsley to season. The mixture is whipped until firm, shaped into balls or quenelles with the help of two spoons and then deep fried until golden brown. The result is a heavenly little appetizer, crunchy on the exterior with a creamy and very flaky inside, like cotton candy of tender cod. It’s a rather sensual experience to pull apart this thing and see the threads of fish on the interior fraying like threads of torn cloth. Very lightly seasoned to let the cod shine through, this might be even better with a touch of vinegar or lemon squeezed over the top.

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