Sales boom for this Portuguese tart treat in Waterloo region
It's a creamy, eggy and crispy tart with a nice light touch of caramelized char that nestles perfectly into the palm of your hand: it's the humble custard tart of Portuguese origin — pastel de nata — and it's an increasingly popular sweet at several local coffee shops, bakeries and even chain grocery stores in the area.
The tart has a long history, too: There are records of it being baked as early as the 17th century, with a version of the current recipe coming from a monastery in Belém, reportedly from the early 1800s.
Here in Waterloo Region, pastéis de nata (the plural form) are a staple with fans of Portuguese snacks like bifana sandwiches, codfish rolls, shrimp patties and bolo de arroz — little rice "muffins."
The sweet treat, selling for about $1.50 or so, goes very well with a good cup of hot coffee.
"They are basically eggs, flour, sugar and TLC," according to Paulo Neves, who co-owns Kitchener's Torreense Store with his wife Julie.
The store on Mill Street at Stirling Avenue takes delivery of the tarts from a Toronto bakery, usually three times a week. Neves estimates that as the holidays approach, they will likely sell thousands of tarts to people who want them as special treats with family and friends.
Monks developed decadent treat
"It's a national recipe and famous all over the world. After Portugal's Liberal Revolution of 1820, the monks needed to survive, so they made this recipe," said Neves.
Like many foods such as cheese, beer and Dom Pérignon Champagne, monks found they had an economic need and started making the tarts to sell. And also like many foods of protected origin (Parmesan cheese, Bolognese pasta sauce), original recipes are fiercely guarded secrets.
"Legend has it that the pastry was invented by the monks of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém near Lisbon. They would use egg whites to starch their robes and the nuns' habits, and they didn't want to waste the yolks. In this particular monastery, they came up with pastéis de Belém," says Kitchener-based Portuguese food expert Paula Costa, who writes the blog Dragon's Kitchen. She visited the Portugal location where pastéis de Belém, the definitive tarts, are made.
The monks partnered with a nearby sugar cane refinery and when the monastery closed, the owner of the refinery got the recipe. "It's stayed with that family ever since," Costa says. "Today, the ingredients are mixed in a secret room, and only a handful of family members know the recipe."
At Belém, the pastry is crispier and the custard is slightly different than here, according to Costa. But no matter where you get them, the variations of the generic pastéis de nata look and taste similar.
Thousands sold weekly in Waterloo region
The Azores Bakery in Cambridge often sells 200 tarts each week, according to Jennifer Couto, whose parents have owned the bakery since the 1990s.
"The tarts' popularity has continuously gone up," she says. "People have learned about them on TV and the Internet. They've travelled to Portugal and come back and want the tarts here."
Lisboa Bakery and Grill in Williamsburg, Kitchener, bakes their tarts at their facility out of town. Depending on the season, store manager Amanda Sarrecchia says they sell up to 3,000 a week in peak season.
Kitchener's Nova Era is also a popular venue for snacking on pastéis de nata. Established in 1991, the Toronto-based, family-owned and operated chain of eight locations makes nearly 10 million tarts a year, according to director of operations Alex Dias.
The company has a commissary dedicated to just making the tarts, eight million of which are sold wholesale to stores other than Nova Era. Dias says that over the past three years, production numbers have doubled every year.
"Our head pastry chef developed the recipe with us 25 years ago. Over the years, we've tweaked it. We try to mimic the traditional recipe that most people experience in Portugal. I think ours is close to the pastéis de Belém," he says.
Will it eclipse the croissant?
Though he wouldn't disclose full details, Dias says Nova Era is embarking on a pilot project to sell pastéis de nata in a national chain coffee shop this fall — with Kitchener and Waterloo as the test market.
So, has the pastel de nata acquired global status like the croissant? Perhaps not quite, but one thing's for sure: it has grown in popularity in Waterloo Region. Neves at Torreense says people buy them regularly and eat them at any time of day.
"A lot of places make them. Are they all good? It's up to the customer to decide," he says. "A dessert, a snack. It's a little escape."
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