Why the Portuguese make so many Custard Tarts

Portuguese Custard Tart in Lisbon
Pasteis de Nata from Patisserie Belem in Lisbon, Portugal, held in front of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

And why most wine isn’t vegan!

Did you know that in order to make sure wine is clear – and with none of the pieces that naturally occur in the sediment: parts of the grape skins or stalks, for example – it has to go through a process of refining and filtering. The wine sediment – also known as “lees” settles over time at the bottom of the vessel it’s fermenting or being stored in. In order for the teeny tiny particles not to stay floating in the wine, making it cloudy, further ingredients are added to attract those tiny particles to gather in large clumps so they will sink to the bottom leaving clear wine above.

Traditionally, these filtering agents are the whites of eggs, fish bladder (known on the label and in the industry as “isinglass”, gelatine from cows (bovine gelatine) or casein, the protein in milk. For a 225L barrel of wine 2-3 egg whites are needed to clarify it. It’s estimated that there are still tiny particles of egg in the wine, which is important for anyone with a serious egg allergy, though even the use of eggs isn’t acceptable to vegans.

Vegan alternatives include bentonite – a clay made from volcanic ash, activated charcoal – a porous carbon, or Irish moss seaweed, also known as carrageen (yes, that’s what that word means in your sweets’ ingredients list!).

“Natural” wines or “cloudy” wines aren’t necessarily wines that haven’t been filtered

Just ones that have not had sulphites added. Sulphites help to stop growth of bacteria and to stop the wine turning into vinegar. Sulphur has been used in wine since Roman times.

How the Portuguese filter their Port

In Portugal, the home of Port, even in the mid-17th Century 1.2 million barrels of port wine were sent along the rivers for sale each year. This volume has only increased. Egg whites are, and have been, typically used to refine this delicious fortified wine. The fortification comes from the addition of an alcohol they refer to as brandy to stall the fermentation after 3-4 days (instead of the usual 3-4 weeks). This makes it sweeter because it stops the transformation of grape sugars into alcohol and higher in alcohol content by adding a high proof spirit to it.

Which leads us to: Pasteis de Nata!

All of the egg whites needed to make wine leads to lots of leftover egg yolks! And what better use for egg yolks than CUSTARD. And what better and more convenient way to serve custard than in custard tarts. Probably the national specialty of Portugal and known as Pasteis des Nata. My favourite in Lisbon from my visit was from the oldest patisserie: Patisserie Belem, where the queues are long, but they’re also excellent from Manteigaria. They’re best eaten immediately. If you’re in Paris then get them from Comme á Lisbonne in the Marais District, where they make them fresh every 30 minutes.

I think that I’ll need to do a London review and chat soon, yes?

If you were wondering, that’s also the reason canelés are so prevalent in Bordeaux!

See the next post for a pairing of port with chocolate…

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