From Convent to Tart: 7 traditional Portuguese pastries to delight the palate
By Mike James
Portugal is well known for its coffee culture – it’s a habit they imported from Brazil some time ago. But did you know that most cafés also serve a mouthwatering selection of traditional Portuguese pastries? A far cry from the humble Fairy Cake or Bakewell Tart, our Portuguese friends take their sweets very seriously indeed – in fact, it’s been something of a national obsession since the 15th century.
Thanks mostly to the creativity thriving in the kitchens of the monasteries and convents where the majority of Portuguese tarts, puddings and pastries originated, there are now over 200 types of sweets that are still prepared according to their original recipes. If you’re a foodie and are travelling to Portugal, you simply must try some of these delicacies.
Whether you’re spending a city break exploring the delights of Lisbon, headed for Faro and the beaches on the Algarve or are keen to explore the terraced vineyards near the Douro River in the north of the country, seek out one of the many traditional coffee shops and stop for um café (espresso), uma meia de leite (flat white) or um galão (latte). Then, to complete the authentic Portuguese experience, choose one of these famous pastries, ideally one that’s fabrico próprio (made on the premises).
- Pastel de Nata
This little custard tart is the most iconic food of Lisbon and there are many different variations in the recipe used by the abundance of bakeries and pastry shops in the Portuguese capital. The original is known as Pastel de Belem after the district of Lisbon where it was first created in the 18th century. It’s made from custard baked inside a thin multi-layered flaky puff pastry crust and should be eaten sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon, ideally straight out of the oven.
- Bolo de Mel da Madeira
This is a dark, spicy honey cake from the islands of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal. The 600-year-old recipe is thought to be the islands’ oldest dessert where it is traditionally prepared on the Day of Immaculate Conception on 8th December. Now widely available all year round, it has a strong molasses flavour, with ingredients including sugar cane and honey, nuts, cloves, cinnamon, star anise. According to local traditions, this honey cake should not be cut with a knife, only with your hand.
- Ovos Moles
Shaped like fish, shells, oysters, clams or barrels as a nod to the seascape around Aveiro where the eggs for this recipe come from, Ovos Moles are in fact delicate wafers. Originally conceived as communion wafers and made from egg yolks and sugar, they were the first conventual pastry with protected status from the European Commission. The wafers are filled with a smooth egg custard that melts in the mouth when you take a bite.
- Pastel de Feijão
This bean tart is made from a puree of cooked white beans and grated almonds and has a flaky, baked crust. A simple pastry that’s quite firm in texture, it is typically served with powdered sugar sprinkled on top. The Pastel de Feijão was invented in the late 19th century by Joaquina Rodrigues who lived in the city of Torres Vedras in the Estremadura region of Portugal, whose family built a successful business around the popular product.
- Bola de Berlim
One of the favourite pastries among locals and visitors alike, the Berlin Ball (a Portuguese take on the custard-filled Berliner doughnut) can be found everywhere in Portugal. During the summer, you’ll find street vendors selling these little delicacies on the beach and around town where they’re snapped up, still warm. They’re a bit like a mini doughnut, except much lighter. Filled with sweet creamy custard, it is then fried and coated in sugar.
- Toucinho do Céu
Literally ‘bacon from heaven’, is a very popular type of almond cake made with pork lard and egg yolks. Portuguese confectionery does traditionally use pork fat in recipes and there are different versions of this classic dessert available all over Portugal. The Santa Clara convent in northern Portugal is credited with the invention of the pastry back in the 18th century. In this recipe, ground almonds give the cake a nutty flavour and nice, dense texture. Another version from a convent in Murca uses Gila, a sweet pumpkin jelly.
- Travesseiro de Sintra
These little pastries are ‘pillow’ (travesseiro) shaped rectangles that look like almond puffs. They’re made from almonds, egg custard and a secret ingredient. Sintra’s Pillows were first conceived at a bakery in the town of Sintra, a beautiful resort north of Lisbon that’s been given UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Many people think it’s worth the trip alone, since the pastries never seem to taste quite the same outside of Sintra.