I remember the first time I tried a Pastel de Belém. It was a bright April day, the sky endlessly blue, the streets lit by the late afternoon sun.
I was – as you would expect – in Belém, the historic neighbourhood just to the west of Lisbon city centre. If my visit had taken place a little earlier, say in the late 15th or early 16th century, then I may well have glimpsed the great Vasco da Gama or Ferdinand Magellan setting sail from the waterfront here, as this riverside district once served as the port from which the country’s finest explorers began their pioneering expeditions, navigating the world’s unchartered waters in search of fame and fortune. The fortified Torre de Belém at one end of the waterfront is a reminder of those golden days of exploration, as is the absurdly intricate Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the monastery commissioned by King Manuel I to celebrate da Gama’s discovery of the first direct sea route to India.
And yet it wasn’t Portugal’s illustrious maritime history or exquisite Manueline architecture that I found myself contemplating on that spring afternoon, but the glassy exterior of the Antiga Confeitaria De Belém – home of the world-famous egg custard tart. These small, seemingly unremarkable pastries are the nation’s favourite sweet treat, and you won’t struggle to locate one in Lisbon – they pop up on many a hotel breakfast table and sit temptingly behind the counters of virtually every bakery. However, for the real thing (an authentic Pastel de Belém as opposed to a plain old pastel de nata), you have to go to Belém. The bakery here has been making tarts since 1837, when the adjacent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was closed and the monks had to diversify to ensure their survival. The exact method and ingredients are a closely guarded secret, but Pastéis de Belém are known for their extremely crispy casing, slight salty taste and a filling that is not quite so sweet as that of your average custard tart. Apparently, the Antiga Confeitaria can produce up to 50,000 per day during peak pastéis season; quite a feat when you consider that these are all made by hand using the original recipe.
I was only in Lisbon for a couple of days, and as I had a full schedule I decided not to linger in the labyrinthine interior of the confeitaria and instead took my pastel out into the sunny afternoon. It came in a little paper bag, with sachets of cinnamon and icing sugar. I could feel its warmth through the paper, and the aroma of freshly baked pastry was making my mouth water. I didn’t make it to a bench, kneeling on the street to tear open the sachets and sprinkle them over the caramelised custard. The light Atlantic breeze had other ideas, swirling the sugar and cinnamon across my fingers. But I hardly noticed – the delicate, flaky pastry and soft, gooey custard were consuming all of my attention. It was heaven.
The next time I visit the city, I'll be sure to allocate a full afternoon to Belém, and to grant myself the luxury of a table in the confeiteria, so that I can enjoy my pastéis with a little more dignity. Although I can't promise that I won't still end up in a delicious, happy mess of sugar and cinnamon…