Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tart with a heart...

Balancing anxiously on a wafer-like edge, I hurriedly pay the man. I rush you home and furtively disrobe you from your papery precinct. A tender vanilla perfume drifts languidly upwards, dissipating softly. You are beautiful. Hues of ingots, burnt caramel and sunlight meld resplendently on your surface. Gently placing you on a plate, running my finger contemplatively around your edges, I know I want to dismantle you slowly, meditatively. You are my new obsession. You are my Pastéis de Nata.

Or a Portuguese Custard tart to most people. I entirely apologise for my Mills & Boon introduction, but it seemed vaguely appropriate for such an object of desire. As I have come to this culinary phenomena relatively late in life, we are still very much in our honeymoon period together. Being obsessed with baking from the earliest of ages, I really can’t understand why I never came across them as I incessantly molested the pages of my mother’s cookery books or magazines. Perhaps it was because I was never a great lover of the bog-standard egg custard tart, that grainy, rubbery, sneezed-upon-with-nutmeg affair, found boxed in pairs in your average supermarket. It’s plausible that a fondness for these may lead you to seek higher planes of tartdom and you subsequently find the aforementioned golden child. Nor had I been blessed with any exciting bakeries in my hometown that would purvey anything more exotic than a French baton – growing up around Continental bakeries would perhaps lead you to a speedy discovery of Pastéis de Nata. This is all speculative though – I’m not entirely sure how or why I managed to miss out on these mouthfuls of perfection until now, given all the patisseries and bakeries I’ve been to, but I did.

I was in fact introduced to the tiny beauties a couple of months ago by my lovely boyfriend as we were standing at the counter in Sid’s on Lamb’s Conduit Street and I excitedly pointed at the most petite pie I’d ever seen. “It’s a Portuguese Custard Tart!” exclaimed Gareth, possibly slightly taken aback that I didn’t know that myself, “They’re delicious – have you never seen one before?”. I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter. Looking at it there, behind the glass like a puppy at the pound, I knew I’d love it. It looked nothing like its matt, bland English sibling. Rather than the Mr. Kipling, factory-uniform shortcrust, its filling was contained by the most delicate, crisp, sprung-apart layers of a puff-type pastry. The custard itself was glossy and burnished and suggested melting crème patisserie underneath, opposed to a thickly set interior which you could bounce a spoon off. But I didn’t buy it. I knew that it had to be saved as a treat or a comfort – there would be a moment when I’d know I needed it, and when I got it, it would solve everything (albeit briefly).

The time came when I was weak of body and spirit and happily, I administered my self-prescribed pastry. Devouring the little mite from the comfort of my bed, it lived up entirely to my expectations. The correct term for the shell is massa folhada and is Portugal’s version of puff pastry. One of the most perplexing aspects of the tart is the way the casing spirals at the bottom, and instead of the layers springing apart upwards, as is convention, it does so sideways. It’s no real mystery however when you give it some thought - to achieve this effect, the technique employed is to roll the thinned-out buttery pastry into a log shape (creating a spiral) and then slice it into thin rounds and press these, flat side down, into the tins. The spiral then puffs outwards. The sumptuous custard which is contained within it
is an eggy mixture stabilised with cornflour, like a crème patisserie, helping it to not curdle in the high temperature ovens. In large portions, you could potentially cripple your stomach in one sitting but the Portuguese Custard Tart’s grace is that it is the epitome of “small but perfectly formed”. Not only are they intriguing to behold, but they are divine to eat and just diminutive enough to feel sated but not saturated.

Delving deeper into the culinary history of these miniature wonders reveals a past as rich as its ingredients. Although eaten all over Portugal, one bakery claims its origins. Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is the place in question, using the same secret recipe employed by bakers 200 years previously around the nearby Jerónimo's Monastery. Well, clearly the tradesmen themselves weren’t that clandestine, selling the recipe during the 19th Century revolution, but the bakery now keeps it under wraps. Apparently their particular formula and method surpasses all others, and the result has been bestowed its own distinct name: Pastéis de Belém, locals beating their chests proudly upon its mention. Rumour has it that many residents claim to be able to pick out a Pastéis de Belém from dozens of other bakeries’ Pastéis de Nata in blind taste tests. Strong stuff. So, aside from their complicated past, what makes these tarts especially super-special? What else but that most elusive of all culinary practices: the secret ingredient.
I have yet to taste one of these mini kings of the pastry world, so much to my dismay, I can’t analyse what this elusive component could be. Apparently most individuals have actually given up on trying to discover it, such is the successful secrecy of Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Some say it doesn’t even exist - it is just a myth used to add enigmatic intrigue.

For me, it seems impossible to better my feelings for Pastéis de Nata but I'm open to enlightenment, thus making my obsession a great excuse to for a sly sojourn to Portugal. And when I go, I shall be sure to give you an overly detailed description of my findings. What I do know for now though is that an attempt to home-make them may not quite result in anything as glorious as those supplied to Sid’s. As much as I would relish baking these, upsettingly, there are some dishes and desserts that are best left to the professionals' techniques and technology. General consensus states that you need a truly hot oven – one that emits a far fiercer heat than any domestic one can go to – in order to blast the pastry to make it really, really crispy. That rules me right out, given I can only get up to 250°C. However, if you do want to try it for yourself, the most plausible recipe I’ve found on the web (along with a terrific article which jovially peeks into the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém) is here http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/food/la-fo-pasteis8sep08,1,6411433.story?page=1&ctrack=1&cset=true&coll=la-headlines-pe-food


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