We crossed the border! We are in Castro Marim, Portugal. We were here in 2019, in fact it was the place where we started hearing an ominous knocking sound from Ruby (our motorhome) that led to a big bill in a mechanic’s workshop in France a few weeks later. No knocking this time. To celebrate our arrival we park and go straight to the nearest cafe. Dos cafe y dos natas, por favor. (Two coffees and two natas, please.) We have been dreaming of these natas for a few hundred miles now. Although it’s possible to get natas in Costa in Bray (and probably lots of other places…?) we never do. We haven’t seen them anywhere in Spain so here in a tiny cafe beside the roundabout at the edge of Castro Marim is our first taste.
The nata was created by the monks (or maybe the nuns…) in Lisbon pre 18th century. They used a lot of egg whites starching laundry which led to loads of leftover egg yolks. Not wanting to waste them gave birth to Pastels de Nata. Tasting my first Portuguese nata in almost three years makes me very happy. Wait! This nata seems to have ignited some ancient ritual and I hear a voice telling me a story. Could it possibly be the true story of the very first nata? It’s in old Portuguese, give me a moment to interpret…
We’re in a huge stone monastery in Lisbon, Portugal. The year is 1687. Sr. Agusta works in the kitchen she’s only 14 and in training to be a nun. So far she’s not doing very well. Her superiors think she spends too much time daydreaming and not enough time scrubbing. But the old nun Sr. Jerome who makes the bread for the monastery really enjoys her company. It is Sr. Jerome who suggested just now to Agusta to start experimenting with the egg yolks. Sr. Jerome has been wondering for a while what to do with the surplus. The entire congregation (nuns and monks) is fed up with her three times a week omelettes and she’s fed up dumping eggs into her bread dough. She has a few ideas for a desert but today she thinks, if Sr. Agusta doesn’t get a win soon she may be moved into the laundry room and the old nun fears for her safety surrounded by vats of boiling water.
What do you love to eat, Agusta? Agusta! Sr. Jermone has to repeat herself a few time to get Aguste’s attention.
I love pastries, sister. That’s lucky the old nun thinks. What kind of pastries do you love?
I love all of them but especially apple pastries, sister.
Unfortunately we have no apples, but we do have lots of egg yolks…
Sr. Jerome is tired, she has been baking since 3am, She heads off to her cell for a quick nap leaving Agusta with instructions to warm some milk. What Sr. Jerome doesn’t know is that Agusta invents things all the time in her daydreams. There was once where she got very close to inventing a non stick saucepan. When the old nun is gone Sr. Agusta starts dreaming about egg yolks. In her daydream she is adding the yolks to her non stick saucepan with warm milk. Meanwhile the actual milk in the not non stick saucepan is boiling over and a smell of burning is filling the kitchen. (Can you smell it?) From her cell Sr. Jerome is dozing and you know the way a dream kind of takes on the reality of the situation you’re waking up to? Like a doorbell ringing will be in your dream and you wake and your doorbell is actually ringing? Well in her dream eggs and milk are burning and just like that she thinks of a pastry case filled with egg custard! Up she sits and manoeures herself towards the kitchen, calling, Agusta! Agusta! At the same time Agusta is running out of the kitchen, Sr. Jerome, Sr. Jerome, I have it! Creamy Custard Pastries, burnt on top!! They meet in the long corridor in front of the statue of Mary – you know the one with her smiling? Sr Jerome’s face is a picture of joy as Sr. Agusta dances around her. Mary smiles down on them. This is the best day.
Unfortunately, this is not the happy ending… the monk in charge of this old monastery has heard the commotion. Long story short, the recipe becomes the intellectual property of the monastery and Sr. Jerome and Sr. Agusta are written out of the history of the nata. Oh well.
At first Sr. Jerome was upset, then angry. But you can’t stay angry for long in Sr. Agusta’s company, she realised there’s something more important than fame and fortune – friendship and daydreams. Sr. Jerome lets her anger go and puts her attention on supporting Sr. Agusta to be the best daydreaming pastry chef she could be. The two nuns spend the rest of Sr. Jerome’s life inventing and perfecting pastries. None were ever as famous as their natas but that didn’t bother them, they had the best life you could have in a convent with no money or power governed by monks. When Sr. Jerome died Agusta left the convent and became a pastry chef in a nearby restaurant. Even though she never got the recognition she deserved for her invention she knew the truth and now you know too.
There you are, you’re the first to know, Sr Jerome and Sr. Agusta invented the Pastel de Nata.
(Disclaimer: This story might not be true.)