In Praise of Custard Tarts

If pushed to choose humankind’s greatest inventions, I’d probably put the wheel second, because head and shoulders above everything has to be custard.

Creamy, eggy, sweet – the base for ice cream, the heart of a good trifle, the yin to crumble’s yang – it is both luxurious and comforting. And think of its European variants: creme brulee, crema catalana, zabaglione and – the ultimate – the Portuguese custard tart, pastel de nata.

pastel de nata
This is what we’re talking about

I have become addicted to these joyous mouthfuls of sweetness, egg yolk custard in flaky puff pastry, baked in a hot oven and best consumed still warm. According to authoritative sources (Wikipedia) these were first made before the 18th century by monks at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Lisbon.

The best ones I know of are probably still those from a stall in the Royal Festival Hall weekend food market, but, praise be, in the past few years a couple of small chains of ‘pastel’ bakeries have opened across the capital. You’ll find ‘Santa Nata’ in Covent Garden, and ‘Cafe de Nata’ in Soho, South Ken, Camden and Hammersmith.

Obviously Little Portugal, the area along the Wandsworth and South Lambeth Roads that is home to London’s Portuguese restaurants will have places that I am yet to discover, so if you have a favourite, please do London (and me) a service and put your recommendations in the comments below.