Rachel Bennett

Portugal and Pastéis

In Food on February 26, 2011 at 23:12

Siga em frente!” The woman scowled, the fissures of her face deepening as she gesticulated up the cobbled hill. “Em frente!” Again she waved into the rain and then turned, shook a pool of water from her umbrella and shuffled down the rain-soaked street, shoulders hunched, unhelpful.

I swore silently and adjusted my backpack, scowling too now. The rain was descending heavier than before, a leaden sheet splitting onto the street and tearing into pieces. Little fragments were finding their way through my clothing, trickling, swerving down my neck, matting the cloth of my shirt so that it clung to my skin, damp and clammy. I looked down at the bit of drooping paper in hand, the ink beginning to run. This is not my fucking idea of spring break, I thought, turning bitterly towards the cobbled hill.

It was my sophomore year of college and I was studying in Madrid. As spring break neared, my classmates began to concoct plans. “Come with us to Morocco,” Melissa urged. But I had other ideas. I was restless and existentially moody. I wanted a challenge and suddenly realized that I had never wandered alone. I’d traveled alone, but always with structure – to Granada for a flamenco course or to Paris to meet up with friends. I had never simply booked a ticket to a foreign place, picked up my pack, and left. I was getting excited; but where to go?

Nestled in the airplane heading west over the arid swath of central Spain, I had envisioned sun-baked streets and browned skin, and myself wandering into the city. I would find a convenient cafe with tables on the plaza and drape my sun-starved body out to air. I’d people watch and read novels, and when bored of my own company, I’d bump into a group of lively Australians and party the night away. It was going to be an adventure – a blissful and carefree escape.

That is how I found myself standing on a sodden street in Porto, shivering in the cold and rain. I had only been in the country for an hour but already I was regretting my stubbornness. Having decided that to book a hostel would be ‘cheating,’ and categorically against the spirit of adventure, I’d simply scribbled the name and address of a nice-looking place with the vague notion that I would see what happened when I got there.

So it was with a great sinking of the heart – and fond thoughts of Morocco – that I trudged in the direction the woman had pointed, the rain unceasing and the faint light fading into the gloom of a death-grey dusk.

When I finally arrived, the hostel was equally uninspiring. Almost empty, the only other occupants were a couple of earnest girls from Maine with formidable backpacks and plans to go off camping the following day. There was no hint of raucous, cheeky-eyed Australians. Beyond this disappointment, I was totally unprepared for the weather and by now thoroughly soaked. The rain had become torrential, and I was shivering violently, so I ate a soggy sandwich and went to bed.

In the morning the wholesome girls were gone and I awoke alone in the hostel. It was still grey but no longer raining so I put on some dry clothes sallied forth into the city, grimly resolved to enjoy myself. At first it was difficult. I walked along dull streets with half the buildings abandoned, many of them apparently burned and long derelict. The people too seemed weary and somewhat dispirited after the vigor and pulse of Madrid. And I didn’t speak Portuguese. Slowly, I felt my heart retracting again into despondency.

But I was hungry. Ducking into the first cafe I found, the world pivoted instantly from dull to decadent. Everything was glossy – the tables and chairs gleamed, the espresso machine shone and the pastry case positively twinkled. I ordered an espresso, in my hapless Portuguese, and pointed to a custard tart.

I took a bite, tissue like leaves of puff pastry shattering and sighing on my tongue, giving way to a rich, lemon-scented custard cream. Then I took a sip of espresso the colour and depth of ebony. It tore through the soft cream, cutting it into lush relief – dark fire against egg-rich round. I took another bite, and another sip.

Perhaps Portugal wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought, brushing crumbs from my jeans and settling back with a book.

*     *     *

Some friends of mine recently returned from a trip to Portugal laden with wine, cheese and plans for a Portuguese themed potluck. So I’ve been mulling over what to make and I simply can’t keep those custard tarts out of my mind. So today, after flicking through various recipes, I gave it a go.

It was my first attempt at pastéis de nata. While certainly toothsome and lush, they weren’t quite, quite there. I will post a recipe once I’ve coaxed a perfect batch!

Yes, ehem, they are supposed to have scorch spots.


  1. adorable pix, R! I can just taste the eggy centre, the caramelised ‘bits’:)

    well done for braving Portugal on your own (or any other place for that matter). i find food is often more memorable when consumed in solitude, is it just me being a lonely loony?

  2. Thanks!

    I agree about eating alone. Sometimes it is intense and blissful in an entirely different way to eating with others. I remember the flavours more when I eat alone, whereas I remember conversations and feelings more when eating in company.

    Remember that part of The Gastronomical Me where M.F.K. Fisher writes about eating alone? It’s exquisite!

  3. darling~
    your photos and your writing continue to grow and blossom with new life and love! i can’t wait to celebrate with you the wonderful opportunities that will without doubt be coming your way.

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