By Ron and Mary James. Another way to experience the culture and flavors of a destination is through cooking classes. As you learn how to make regional specialties, you learn the lore – how the dish is part of history and culture.
It’s one thing to savor Portugal’s favorite sweet, pastel da nata, but it’s another to make it from scratch. One cool morning we took the always exciting number 28 tram to the Compadre Cooking School to learn how to prepare this tasty tart, first sold at a patisserie in nearby Belem in the early 1800s. The 2-hour hands-on class in Compadre’s sleek kitchen was fun and informative. Being in the company of our fellow chefs made even more enjoyable. They included fellow foodies and adventurers from New Jersey, Scotland, London, and Germany.
Our outstanding chef-instructor, Jose Silva, shared secrets for flavoring the silky custard rich with cream and egg yolks. While he showed us the time-consuming steps for making the puff pastry crust, he spared us the labor by making the butter-rich dough ahead of time. We carefully patted it into the pastel baking cups, ladled in the custard, and waited patiently for them to emerge from the 500-degree oven.
He also added a second dish, traditional Portuguese cod fish fritters, that gave us experience working with dried salt cod. The savory recipe was a delicious counter to the pastels’ creamy sweetness. We then settled into the School’s long table for a feast of our own making.
In our previous encounters with Pastel de Natas, we’ve limited ourselves to just one. But these were so good that we each had two. Maybe, when we’re back in San Diego, we can get into the pastel-making business. Our motto? “Better than Belem!” What do you think?


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