Friday, August 19, 2011

Macau to Lisbon: On the Hunt for Egg Tarts

Macau--which I first visited in 1999 just before the outstretched arm of the Portuguese empire contracted and the peninsula and affiliated islands reverted to Chinese control--reminded me, on a more recent visit earlier this month, of Antigua, Guatemala, crossed with Las Vegas. That "Special Administrative Region" of the People's Republic of China was the first stop on my summer holiday. I was accompanied by my friends Nathan and Ana, who asked to be described as "my vigorous and youthful-appearing polyglot buddies," and together we sought out the SAR's best egg tart. Sort of a flan molded into a two-bite-sized pastry shell and then browned under the broiler, the egg tart--along with crusty bread, cobble-stoned streets, and airy courtyards--is one of the most durable Portuguese legacies in Macau. Nathan and Ana's five-year-old son, Marco, has no interest in egg tarts but he does have an eye for light and shadow, and, thanks to him, for the first time in quite a while Chocolate in Context had its own dedicated official photographer on the trip. This August I've followed the luscious pastry I found in Asia back to Portugal, and I'll spend the next month in this calm and quiet European country in the shadow of the twenty-first century. But here at my artists' residency in the Alentejo region, there is a castle on the horizon, a pool down a path to be navigated with a flashlight on a warm evening, and, everywhere, art--real, growling, pulsating art--on the walls of this old, stone-encased farm house. So I will mention a few versions of the sweet snack that spans continents and then return to the cork and olive trees on the horizon.

Ou Mun Cafe
Our first stop was this bakery cafe that beckoned us with its charming tiled exterior but disappointed with its egg tarts whose syrupy filling was the taste and texture of condensed milk rather than the quichey, french-toasty sweet souffle we prefer. We took this to be a baking error made by a kitchen staff too far removed from Macau's Portuguese influence, but I must admit that the first egg tart I tried in the town of Estremoz the other day was very similar.

Margaret's Cafe e Nata
If you're coming from mainland China where such a thing simply doesn't exist no matter what price you name, you'll find nothing so delightful as watching the sandwich ladies smear simple hearty chicken salad made with bacon and avocado on whole wheat bread. The egg tarts are greasy and sweet and the perfect indulgence at the communal wooden tables outside.

Koi Kei
These flaky, light, and reliable mass-produced egg tarts are available at several locations near the bottom of the steps of the ruins of the Cathedral of Saint Paul.

Lord Stow's Bakery and Cafe
A chronicle of Stow printed and displayed in the tiny (but famous and franchised) bakery uses the rhetoric of colonial-era stories but these egg tarts are the twentieth-century invention of an Englishman--and his decision to use cream instead of cornstarch makes them quite luscious indeed.

The best is yet to come?
In Lisbon, the most coveted egg tarts are the Pasteis de Belem made with the Jeronimos Monastery's secret recipe. "They're like the ones in Macau, all caramelized on top," my friend Loring tells me, "but they're somehow more delicious (perhaps because they're made by nuns?)"

Photos by Emily Stone and Marco Stringer Greenleaf


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