WHEN customers told Portuguese baker Jose Cardoso that his egg tarts were the best in the UK, he took up the challenge and decided to enter his pastries in the prestigious Quality Food Competition.

Jose, 47, who lives in Swindon, already had a demanding full-time job working for the BMW group - but tucked away in a tiny kitchen, amongst the many various business start-ups in BSS House on the Cheney Manor industrial estate, the ambitious Jose was busy baking pasties in his spare time.

A one-man operation, he perfected his Portuguese egg tart and was selling them at local farmers’ markets on the weekends.

Customers quickly developed a taste for his delicious pastries and kept coming back for more. Soon they were telling him just how wonderful his egg tarts tasted – in fact, they told him they were the best they had ever tasted.

But how could Jose be sure? He found out about the Quality Food awards and decided to put his produce to the test.

“I said customers had told me these were the best Portuguese egg tarts – and someone challenged me and said, how can you say it’s the best? Did you get any award?” Jose said. “That’s when I decided to enter the contest. I would find out from professionals if they really were good or not.”

Jose has baking in his blood. His parents were bakers – his father Amadeu making bread, his mother Mariana specialising in cakes - and he remembers delivering their wares to customers. His father died when Jose was just 10, but his mother continued to run the bakery.

When he was 21, Jose went to Africa, where he spent five years working as a missionary, travelling to Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. He worked hard, and at 24 was serving over 55,000 meals a month to people needing food.

It was in Angola he met and married his wife Ana. The couple returned to Portugal, and then five and a half years ago, relocated to the UK with their three children.

Jose worked at Tesco, then at Honda, and finally joined BMW at Plant Oxford, helping build Minis.

He was off work sick for a time, suffering hernias, and he took the opportunity, while waiting for an operation, to think about his future. He came up with the idea of setting up a bakery. He worked hard on perfecting his recipe, and two years ago, Tuga Pastries was launched.

He sold some 20,000 pastries at markets in Oxford and the Swindon Outlet Centre farmers’ markets.

“The Portuguese egg tart – the Pastel de Nata – is the most famous and most difficult to copy,” he explained.

“It’s based on a recipe from the 17th century – the nuns used to bake them. They’re made of pastry and cream and eggs. The temperature of the milk is important. It took me two weeks to figure out the perfect pastry.”

Legend has it that convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg white to starch their clothes, so the left-over egg yolks were used to make cakes and pastries, which were sold.

As to the exact recipe, he is – unsurprisingly – tight-lipped, but the pastries soon acquired fans and sometimes he would sell all his stock and have to dash back to the bakery to make another batch.

Despite his local success, Jose was stepping into a whole new world at the Quality Food Awards. Now he was competing with huge retailers, and global players in the food market, so it was a real David and Goliath contest for the one-man operation from Swindon.

The judging panel was made up chefs, chef-lecturers, home economists, food writers, and consultants, restaurateurs, food technologists and representatives from regional food groups.

They debated and discussed the merits of each product, rating the flavour, texture, aroma, ingredients list, innovation, presentation and price.

Jose’s Pastel de Nata were entered in the cake section – and to his surprise, were shortlisted in the class. He was invited to a glamorous award ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, and from a cake short-list including choices from Asda, Morrison’s and the Co-op, he won the Quality Food Award 2017 award for best small cake.

And if that were not triumph enough, he also received the ‘highly commended’ award for the Quality Food Awards Gold Q – described by the organisers as the ultimate accolade, awarded to the product that stands out from all other entrants within the category.

Jose was delighted: “At first I didn’t even realise I had won,” he said. “The name was on the big screen.”

Jose uses free-range eggs for the tarts he sells at the farmers’ markets and his stall is always busy with customers. But what makes his pastries so special? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, and having watched Jose prepare and bake a batch of his award-winning Portuguese egg tarts, we see the final product is fragrant, with crispy, golden pastry and a custard-yellow top, flecked with brown.

As friends and colleagues bite into these freshly baked pastry treasures, they report back in one voice that this is indeed a slice of culinary heaven – rich and flavoursome, with a crisp, flaky pastry and a lush, creamy custard filling. Evidently Jose has gained even more fans.

Now he is hoping the award will lead to bigger and better things for Tuga Pastries. He has left his job at BMW to focus full time on the bakery. The company has wished him success and in a newsletter, said that having been part of building a British icon - the Mini - he is: “now going to pursue his dream of... making a Portuguese icon, the egg custard tart.”

Already he is planing to scale up his operation with a bigger oven.

“I’m already getting interest from retailers, so I am preparing to bake thousands a day,” he said. “I want to be making five thousand a day by March. I have always sold everything I make,” he said. “People order them for weddings to please their brides, I had orders for Christmas too.”

Sadly, Jose lost his mother before she had a chance to see his stellar rise as a baker. “She would have been proud,” he said. “Actually, she would be helping me. She told me to do whatever I wanted. She always worked so hard.”