Where do you find the best Portuguese food in London? In Vauxhall of course! Vauxhall is an odd part of central London, famous for the old Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (now called Spring Gardens) tucked behind the River Thames, traffic gyratory with a mammoth bus stop, tube and rail stations, a commuter hub between Waterloo and Clapham Junction. It’s an area of constant change with re-development and the new American Embassy arriving just a stone through away on Nine Elms Lane. Famous for its nightlife with a myriad of nightclubs under the railway arches and a throng of commuters mixed with clubbers at all time of the day and night. But behind all of this is a large Portuguese community.
A few years back I made many trips with AGA to demonstrate in the AGA Shop on the Algarve and at trade fairs in Lisbon and Vilamoura. Holiday destinations to some, but a great work trip to discover a new cuisine, cook on the AGA and enjoy some winter sun. It was on one of these trips that I discovered Portuguese Custard Tarts or Pasteid De Nata. A crispy puff pastry individual tart filled with a set custard. I remember trying them in Lisbon in what I was told was the best place in Portugal to have them, an old bakery tucked away on a side street. Upon returning to the UK I tried to make them, but was never actually sure how to do it. Even the recipes I found on the web did not make them properly. On recent trips to Hong Kong and China I used to see them in fast food outlets and this is all due to the Portuguese occupation of Macau. Developed in the 18th Century to use up left over egg yolks as a glut of them were available due to egg white being used for starching laundry and clarifying the impurities from wine manufacture.
Madeira London is a chain of Portuguese cafes and restaurants, nestled away in one of these railways arches in Vauxhall, between nightclubs and a petrol station, an unlikely location by any stretch of the imagination. It turns out this is only one of the locations these mighty fine deserts are sold in. I was invited to see how they are made, in a factory on the Wandsworth Road behind the BMW Park Lane service garage. Paulo meets me and shows huge vats of custard, all ready to make the tarts. My mind was racing as to just how many he was going to make due to the amount of custard that I saw which reminded me of situations on a children’s TV shows. “12 million Pasteid De Nata a year” I was told. Wow. According to Google the population of London was 8.1 million in 2011, so that’s 1.4 per person per year. After tasting them I understood why.
The next thing I saw in the factory (as I tried to stop my offensive blue hairnet tickling my ears) was a huge table with pastry on it. One sheet to cover the whole table and before I could ask Palo had rolled it up lengthwise. It was the puff pastry for the base of the tarts, the bit that gives the joyous crunch on the tarts combined with the smooth custard. It was rolled to perfection, nice and tight to form hundreds of crispy layers when cooked. Now, I chop vegetables fast. Cutting this pastry was something else, Palo cut from one end of the roll to the other without pausing for breath. All equally sized and ready to be placed into the individual molds. At this point I could only assume that they would be placed into the mold and stamped into place, but no, again at lighting speed Palo wet his thumb and pushed the pastry up the side of the molds and was filling a jug full of the custard before I could get a chance to try to make them for myself. I could not do it properly, my pastry did not rise to the shape of the mold like what Palo achieved. Asked how to make the pastry, Palo said, “My recipe”, trying to get a little bit more information I asked how much butter was in the pastry he looked at me and said he used margarine. This is not puff pastry, as I know it.
With rows and rows of pastry cases lining the benches all over the Madeira factory I knew by now that Palo was going to be filling these by hand. A vat of custard was wheeled over and he filled it with an odd shaped funnel, just like one of these Croquembouche molds I have seen in Divertimenti (a Croquembouch is a French Wedding Cake) that had the end cut off. As he filled the tarts to the brim with custard with no spills between each individual tart I knew I did not have the skills to work like this. Into the oven, very high heat and 15 minutes later after rising up as they cooked so they looked like they would explode out came the tarts. Too hot to eat, but visually stunning, bright yellow filling with burnt patches on the custard and crispy pastry. Others had blueberries in them too.
Now after watching this at mass speed and attention to detail it was my turn to make them, only this time in the AGA at Divertimenti on Brompton Road. The pastry crisped beautifully on the floor of the Roasting Oven, the filling set and the custard had those nice burnt bits. I had made them, a food I loved and always wondered how it was done – next global food stop in London was in sight, Azerbaijan. Where is that exactly?
Restaurant: Madeira London
Address: 89 Albert Embankment, London, SE1 7TP
Pastel de Nata – Portuguese Custard Tarts
3 egg yolks
125g caster sugar
225ml double cream
Seeds of 1 vanilla pod
300g ready made puff pastry rectangle, about the size of an A4 sheet of paper
- Make the custard by whisking the egg yolks, cornflour and sugar in a bowl until pale and fluffy.
- Heat the milk and cream with the vanilla seeds until a gentle simmer in an AGA saucepan on the Simmering Plate is achieved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Pouring about 1/3 of the milk and cream mixture into the egg and sugar, whisk until combined. Pour back into the saucepan and whisk until thickened. Allow to cool.
- Roll the puff pastry up lengthwise and cut into 12 disks. Place each one into an individual mold and using a wet finger, push the pastry up the sides of the mold until it reaches the top. Place the pastry cases onto an AGA large Hard Annodised Baking Tray and fill with the custard mixture and cook on the floor of the Roasting Oven for 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool and enjoy.