“For me, it’s part of being Portuguese,” says Nelson Countinho of eating pastéis de nata.
He co-owns Casa Nata, a bakery specialising in these sweet Portuguese tarts, with childhood friend Ruben Bertolo. They met at Saturday Portuguese language school, and as they grew up, wished that great pastéis de nata were more readily available.
“It’s not typically something you’d make at home because it’s tricky to get right. You’d usually get somebody to make them for birthdays and events or get them at dinners at the Portuguese club and, obviously, every time we went to Portugal,” explains Bertolo.
“People seemed to already like what was available here, but it’s nothing compared to what we would eat in Portugal. So we thought, if people like them already, imagine if they get to try some decent ones?”
Small enough to be held in the palm of your hand, a pastel de nata is made with flaky puff pastry filled with a smooth cream and sugar custard. As early as the 17th century, Portuguese nuns and monks used egg whites to starch their clothes. The leftovers yolks would end up in pastries, like these tarts.
In 2017, Bertolo and Coutinho went straight to the source and conducted a research trip entirely devoted to the tarts. They visited Portugal's capital, Lisbon, as well as nearby cities Porto and Leiria. They ate as many versions as they could and gleaned tips from Portuguese bakers.
“It’s not typically something you’d make at home because it’s tricky to get right. You’d usually get somebody to make them for birthdays and events or get them at dinners at the Portuguese club and, obviously, every time we went to Portugal.”
When they returned to Australia, they adapted what they had learned to local ingredients. It meant making hundreds and hundreds of tarts until they achieved the result they wanted.
“We make everything here from scratch. We do the lamination, the layers you see in the pastry, we do the custard and we bake them,” says Bertolo. The process takes three days, from start to finish.
For Countinho, what separates an average pastel de nata from a great one is the pastry: “It needs to be crispy. When you bite into one, you want to hear that satisfying crunch and feel the silky smooth custard. That’s a perfect tart to me.”
Bertolo adds that the shape of the tart must be symmetrical, and that the top must be heavily caramelised, which happens when they’re baked in a very hot oven.
The duo first sold their tarts during a pop-up, before taking part in the latest Summer Night Market at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. Bertolo and Coutinho are now putting the final touches to their Thornbury shop, which features a kitchen behind glass, where you can observe the tarts being made.
"When you bite into one, you want to hear that satisfying crunch and feel the silky smooth custard. That’s a perfect tart to me.”
You can still get your Casa Nata fix in the meantime: its tarts are available in boxes of six or 12 for takeaway (by pre-order) or delivery in neighbouring suburbs. “Locals have reacted really well. During the short amount of time that we’ve been doing this, which is a few weeks, we can say we already have regulars. Some people come back every weekend,” says Bertolo.
When the bakery opens to the public soon, tarts will be available per piece or by the box, and you’ll have the option to have them the classic way, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar.
Bertolo and Coutinho don’t rule out one day offering a larger selection of Portuguese baked goods, but they’re happy with tarts and coffee for now. “The tarts will always be the main show,” says Bertolo.
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