Imagine a warm tart, about the circumference of a coffee mug with flaky, crispy dough, surrounding creamy custard. Delicious. The pastry is a Portuguese specialty called pastel de nata.
“I personally prefer them hot out of the oven topped with a little bit of cinnamon, that’s the only way to have them,” Jessica Coelho, owner of Tia Maria’s European Café said.
Pastel de nata translates from Portuguese to “custard tart.” They are sweet, but not overly so. About a year-and-a-half ago, Coelho hit upon an idea. At her downtown New Bedford restaurant, she started accepting parking violations as coupons for a complimentary pastel de nata, no questions asked.
“It all started with one of my regular customers. They came in, and they were all down in the dumps that they had gotten a parking ticket. So I was like, 'Hey, here’s a pastel de nata, hopefully this cheers you up.' And it seemed to do the trick. It became one of those things that, if you get a parking violation downtown, at Tia Maria’s you’re entitled for a pastel de nata,” Coelho said.
The program caught on. At the beginning, she gave out around six pastries per day. It has slowed down since then, but she is still doing it. It has helped build her downtown New Bedford business.
“One of the reasons why I chose downtown was, I love downtown New Bedford. I saw that as a historic downtown, it's a big historic tourist destination. I saw that it did lack Portuguese cuisine, especially in an area in which New Bedford is predominantly Portuguese. To me it wasn’t rocket science,” said Coelho.
One expert on the pastel de nata is local author Maria Lawton, a resident of North Dartmouth, who recently published Azorean Cooking from My Family Table to Yours. She speaks with passion and love about food. When considering what makes the dessert special, she noted its history.
“The original pastel de nata is really a knockoff of the pasteis de Belem, which is in Belem, in the mainland Portugal," she said. "It’s a family secret that was passed down from monks who gave it to this one family. And this one family is the only one who has it. So, because they don’t share with anyone and people love the taste of it, people have since then tried to replicate it.”
Lawton says because there is no authoritative recipe, each pastry and recipe is slightly different. She thinks it’s important to try a bunch from different places, be it a bakery, a restaurant like Tia Maria’s, or even making your own.
“Everyone’s off by a little," said Lawton. "Some are infused with lemon, so when you bite into it, it’s not just this creamy egg custard - there’s an infused flavor of lemon in it, which is amazing. Some people put cinnamon on the top. And some use lemon and cinnamon."
Both Tia Maria’s owner Jessica Coelho and local author Maria Lawton continue to bring their Portuguese and Azorean dishes to new audiences every day. And Coelho’s spontaneous parking ticket coupon program is still going on. When someone brings in a ticket, Tia Maria’s will not pay for the violation, but the gesture of a free pastry does help to soften the blow.