Portugal’s pastel de nata tart: a crisis-buster?

A pastel de nata is displayed at a Nata Lisboa cafe in Lisbon.

LISBON: It may seem an unlikely way to help Portugal out of recession but a local group has launched an international coffeehouse chain to sell the country’s much-loved custard tart around the globe.

Even Lisbon’s economy minister has placed his bets on the export appeal of “pastel de nata,” a rich, round egg custard in a flaky crust that was first baked a few centuries ago.

Sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar, the tiny pastry for one is sought by locals and tourists alike. Over the years, it has become a source of national pride, resonant of languid days in Lisbon cafes sipping coffee and snacking on a nata.

“Pastel de nata is one of Portugal’s most emblematic products and despite its success, why have we never managed to export it?” Economy Minister Alvaro Santos Pereira asked a panel of Portuguese businessmen at a meeting.

Urging them to think “international,” he said that American hamburgers and donuts have been marketed around the world with wild success.

Why can’t we do the same with a typical Portuguese product like nata, Pereira asked?

The country, whose economy is set to shrink by 3 percent this year, is struggling to stabilize strained public finances with the help of a 78 billion euro ($96 billion) EU-IMF debt bailout.

And like other eurozone countries in difficulty, Lisbon too is counting on exports to get the economy growing again and run a trade surplus – an important contributor to growth.

Unbeknownst to Pereira, a franchiser called “Be-business” had already drawn up plans to promote pastel de nata abroad.

“The truth is that we had already been working on the project for a few months when the minister made his statement [in January],” said Nuno Seabra, one of project managers.

Local lore holds that nata was first made in a Catholic monastery in Belem, a Lisbon neighborhood and port from where some of Portugal’s great explorers once set off.

Convents and monasteries kept chickens for eggs whose whites were used for starch, leaving leftover yolks that were turned into sweet pastries, including nata.

In the 19th century, a Belem bakery was the first to actually sell the tart and, thanks to the busy port, its fame spread in and out of the country, including faraway places where Portuguese had settled like Brazil and Mozambique.

Egg tarts popular in Hong Kong and mainland China are said to have evolved from nata first tasted in nearby Macau when it was still a Portuguese colony.

The Belem bakeshop, reputedly Portugal’s best nata bakers thanks to a recipe kept secret since the 19th century, still exists, drawing hundreds of visitors daily.

And despite pressure, it has never divulged its recipe and always refused to export, believing its artisanal confection was ill-suited to mass production.

In recent years, copycat “natas” have cropped up around the world, sometimes under other names or recipes that little resemble the original. Be-business decided the time was right to create an international chain based on the pastry called “Nata Lisboa.”

It tested recipes for months until it found the “good one” that will be used in each franchise.

“The DNA of our concept is the city of Lisbon,” said Seabra. “In our cafes you can also find several typical products such as ‘bica,’ a Lisbon-style espresso, or ginginha, a liquor made from cherries.”

The first opened in June in Lisbon’s old town, a “must” on the tourist circuit, with another 10 set to open around Portugal by the end of the year.

The first foreign “Nata Lisboa” will open in Paris in the coming months, said Seabra, “followed by Brazil, North America and Asia” by 2016. Seabra is matter-of-factly confident. “The world needs nata,” he said, quoting the chain’s slogan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2012, on page 13.




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