All the great Portuguese explorers that changed the world with their discoveries, from Magellan to Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama, began their voyages from the district of Belém, in Western Lisbon. This fact alone was enough to spark my curiosity; and yet, I enjoyed Belém far less than I did the rest of the city. In comparison, it looked and felt grey, bland, overcrowded; a meagre bunch of celebrated tourist sights crammed between drab blocks of concrete estates. It didn’t help that we visited on a rainy Sunday; the combination of humid, stuffy weather and tourist buses ejecting visitors at every corner marred the enjoyment of exploring a new place. Still, I don’t regret taking a look around. I’m pleased I managed to get a snap of the local landmark, the Torre de Belém – and that we chose not to queue in the pouring rain to get in, heading for lunch at a local restaurant instead. I’m glad I had the chance to visit the Hieronimyte Monastery, with its stunning architecture and fascinating historical background. More than everything, I’m happy that, after years of anticipation fuelled by all my friends who’d visited Lisbon before me, I got a chance to visit Pastéis de Belém, and eat their magnificent pastéis de nata.
Pastéis de Belém – or, as your travel guide might call it, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém – is a bakery; some go as far as claiming it’s THE bakery in Lisbon, and you should believe every word. Believe history, at least, if you don’t want to pay heed to the hype. Pasteis de Belém was born in the aftermath of the 1820 liberal revolution, when Belém monks began selling sweet pastries as their means of survival, after the Hieronimyte monastery had been shut down. Their speciality were the typical Portuguese custard tarts called pastéis de nata, baked according to an ancient recipe only a chosen few were privy to. The tale goes on to tell that this recipe is still unchanged, and kept secret by Belém’s master confectioners; to this day, Belém is the only place where you can taste the original pastéis, and custard tarts as fine and flavoursome are nowhere else to be found. Everyone who knows Lisbon a little raves about them – and I mean everyone, from one-off visitors who fell in love at first bite, to born-and-bred Portuguese people who’ve been there as often as a British person could claim to have visited their local pub.
My visit to Pastéis de Belém began under the bad omen of a long queue outside the building, moving painfully slow, and growing further as we pondered on whether to join in or not. Luckily, we quickly found it was for takeaway customers only: there’s a separate, much shorter waiting line for eat-in diners, in a seating area in the back of the cafe. The dining room might look crowded, but it’s spacious enough to accommodate a good hundred people, and staff members may also open a few more adjoining rooms at busy times; even though we visited on a Sunday afternoon, it took us no more than ten minutes to find a table. Most of the time, they try to fit groups of any size around small tables that would usually sit two or three, so the queue can move faster; don’t let this bother you (ask for more space if you need it), and make getting those pastéis in your belly your main focus.
Let’s face it: everyone loves Belém’s pastéis – and if you’ve never been there, you might not see why. Doesn’t the secret recipe story sound like a clever publicity stunt? Possibly. Don’t those pastéis look the same as every other pastel in every other bakery in Lisbon? Indeed. But do they taste the same? Not quite. For a start, they’re served warm, fresh from the oven; while you walk to the dining area, you might see bakers taking stacks of tartlets out of large oven trays. The custard cream feels smoother and tastes richer when served warm, and the pastry base (crispy and slightly oily, as if it had been deep-fried first, and baked afterwards) is miles away from the flaky, puff-like casing of all the pastéis I’d tried before. As if this weren’t enough, you’ll find cinnamon and icing sugar dispensers on every table, full of powdery goodness you can sprinkle on your pasteis; a dash of cinnamon goes a long way in enhancing their flavour even further. This is, perhaps, the fact that struck me the most: I’d heard a million times before that pastéis are meant to be consumed warm and with cinnamon on top, but you’ll hardly find a bakery that serves them this way, unless you go to Belém.
Belém’s pastéis cost 1.05€ a piece; slightly more than you’ll pay in most Lisbon cafes (the average price ranges between 0.75 – 1€), but more than reasonable, considering that you won’t get this level of quality anywhere else (may I remind you it’s £0.76 we’re talking about?). 8€ (less than £6) bought us six pastéis and two drinks, and we got to sit down for a good hour, with no staff members ever rushing us to leave. When we did leave, I felt charmed, sweeped off my feet by an experience that exceeded even my rosiest expectations. In all my travels, I’ve never come across a place that’s as popular with locals as it is with visitors, and offers such great value for money despite being such a sensation. More strikingly even, at a time when you can learn just about anything by typing a couple of words on Google, I can find no other explanation as to why Belém’s pastéis are so different, than a mysterious, treasured recipe. Secretive monks and brilliant stunts stemmed out of a fierce revolution sound like a plot straight out of a novel; I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am that Pasteis de Belém is real.
Pastéis de Belém (Antiga Confeitaria de Belém)
Rua Belém 84-92
Open daily, 8:00 – 24:00 between 1 July – 30 September, 8:00 – 23:00 between 1 October – 30 June.
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