Portugal is famous for its pastries, especially the pastel de nata custard tart. But each region has its own special recipes and cakes to discover. In a small village near Coimbra in central Portugal, I learned how the recipe for pastel de Tentúgal, that originated in the local convent, is now made at a local bakery.
Read on to learn how the filo pastry is made, what other cakes you can try here, and the history of the cake and the local convent and churches.
“You’re going to see magic this morning,” Olga Cavaleiro, co-owner of O Afonso Pastelaria, promises as she leads me and my companions to a large empty room behind her café and bakery. This is where the impossibly thin pastry for pastéis de Tentúgal (Tentúgal pastries) is made. The dough is made just from water and flour so fine you could mistake it for talcum powder.
We don hair nets and plastic shoe covers before entering, taking care not to step on the low platform covered with white sheets that takes up most of the floor space. The baker, Rosa, greets us with a shy smile before showing us how she transforms the pastry dough from a thick disc to a see-through sheet.
Magical pastry dough
First, Rosa checks the consistency of the dough before placing it on the floor. Now the magic begins. She lifts the edges of the circle of dough, gently stretching it to create a large bubble of air which wobbles for a moment before settling. The nuns who discovered this elastic quality of their dough thought it was a miracle. Even though she knows it’s actually due to the gluten and the level of humidity in the local area, Olga tells us, “I think it is a miracle because it is magic.”
Rosa leaves the dough to rest for a short while before repeating the process several times. By the final stretch, the bubble billows and ripples like a wave with each pull and the dough is so thin that holes start to appear. Rosa is prepared for this and grabs a white cloth from her shoulder to throw over the gaps.
She knows what she’s doing having trained for two years to become an expert in this stage of the process. Despite her experience, the success of each batch of pastry can vary according to the weather, the flour and her sensitivity to the dough.
As Rosa kneels to slice and collect sheets of pastry in a tray, Olga places her hand under a piece that’s as transparent as tracing paper. With such delicate material, getting the consistency of the filling right is crucial. If it’s too sloppy, the cake will be ruined.
If you don’t have time to watch the complete video, you can see the billowing effect at 1:30.
Filling the pastries
Maria do Carmo learned how to make pastéis de Tentúgal at the age of 12 and has been doing it for a living for 40 years. Downstairs in the main bakery, we watch as she shreds and layers sheets of pastry to create a base. She then spoons in the sweet eggy filling and deftly rolls it all into a parcel which she glazes with melted butter using a feather.
Cakes with history
As with many of Portugal’s cakes, the recipe for Tentúgal pastries originated in the local convent. To begin with, the nuns made them purely for their own consumption and for special guests. When religious orders were abolished in Portugal in 1834, the nuns began selling their pastries to support themselves financially.
Fortunately, the recipe was passed on before the last of Tentúgal’s nuns died in 1898 and was maintained by a local family until the 1950s. At that time, all the young girls in the village were taught how to make pastéis de Tentúgal at the local primary school. The recipe is now protected and controlled by the Confraria da Doçaria Conventual de Tentúgal (Guild of Conventual Confectionary of Tentúgal). These cakes are now one of Tentugal’s primary sources of income and employment, not to mention pride.
The best cake in Tentúgal?
With so much special attention, you’d expect something remarkable from a pastel de Tentúgal. Like most things, they are best served fresh and are usually served with a light sprinkling of sugar. The paper-thin pastry is crisp and the egg yolk cream inside is sweet and moist. I’d tried one at a café in Coimbra a few months before visiting O Afonso and been unimpressed. As Olga points out, there are many imitations but only in Tentúgal are they made with the care and attention to detail that is required. The real deal is indeed much tastier but it’s still not my favourite Tentúgal cake.
O Afonso bakery also produces queijadas (cheesecakes) and the unique espigas (ears of corn). Queijadas are nothing like the cheesecakes you’re probably familiar with. They come in a thin pastry case filled with a sponge made from cottage cheese, flour, sugar and eggs and, being less sweet, are my personal favourites. Espigas are made in a special mould to create the effect of corn kernels and are also not too sweet and rather lovely.
Olga’s mother founded O Afonso in 1956, although for some reason she named it after her husband. The bright and modern café area was recently restyled by Olga’s husband, Pedro Perreira, making it a pleasant place to drink one of their range of herbal teas while munching on delicious cakes. They sell a range of gourmet food products and have also opened a similar establishment in Coimbra.
You can also buy their pastéis de Tentúgal at certain Continente supermarkets including Coimbra and at Lisbon airport.
Tentúgal’s convent and churches
O Afonso is also one of the places to come if you want to arrange to visit the convent or any of the churches in Tentúgal. Olga is one of the keyholders and is passionate about sharing and preserving her village’s heritage. Alternatively, you can ask at the town hall (Câmara).
The convent itself was stripped of many of its most attractive architectural features long ago although some altarpieces and stone sculptures remain. The nuns lived here in seclusion and you can still see plenty of evidence of this: the grated tower at the top of the building; the convent wheel which they used for selling cakes; windows with grilles; separate seating behind the main nave of the church and a window at the side of the altar through which they received communion. The convent side of the window is austere while the public façade is beautifully decorated.
In one of the back rooms, you’ll find some of the convent’s most important treasures including a collection of terracotta sculptures by Machado de Castro, the renowned sculptor who Coimbra’s national museum is named after.
The two other churches in Tentúgal are worth visiting for their remarkable stone sculptures. Igreja da Misericórdia features a group of expressive mourners gathered around Jesus and a spectacularly detailed altarpiece carved from local stone.
Olga saved the best for last, though. I was sceptical about her claim that we were about to see “the most beautiful church in Portugal” but I can see why she makes it. The altarpiece here is also stone but it’s unusual for two reasons.
Firstly, the striking blue and other bright colours and secondly because all of the significant figures are beautiful, well-dressed and happy-looking females.
The saints gathered around the central figure of Our Lady of Mourão hold something to show what they are renowned for. Saint Agatha, for example, is holding breasts while Saint Luzia carries eyes. The other chapels in Igreja do Mourão are varied and unique, even surreal in one case.
How did Tentúgal get its name?
Legend has it that Tentúgal got its name during a long ago battle with the Moors. A Mourão is a mighty and strong Moorish man and as the story goes, when it became apparent that the locals were losing the fight, the crowd began to yell “Tente igual do Mourão,” (“Try the same as the Moor”). This got shortened to Tentúgal.
Whether the origins of its name are true or not, the village lies just off the road that connects Coimbra with the beach town of Figueira da Foz so you could combine a stop here with a day at the beach or a visit to the nearby castle of Montemor-o-Velho. (Tentúgal on Google maps)
I’m grateful to Anita and Tom from Anita’s Feast and to APTECE for enabling me to join the visit to Tentúgal.