When in Lisbon, Portugal, eating Pastéis de Belém, the iconic Portuguese egg tart, is an absolute requirement, whether you’re a foodie or not. Here’s why you must try it and how to enjoy it at its best.
I admit it. Last year in Lisbon I became a junkie. Obsessed. Hopelessly addicted.
My drug of choice? The Portuguese egg tarts that fall under the general term Pastel de Nata. And for the best fix of all? The original, the only, the best… the supreme Pastéis de Belém.
Portugal is famous for Pastel de Nata, and you’ll see them all over Lisbon. Most are good, a few are great. Some are just… meh. But once you learn to spot the good ones—and it’s not hard to do—it’s near impossible to pass them up. Or at least it was for me.
A Religious Source-Tarted Up Like Sally Fields
So how did these pastry treats come to be an almost universal symbol of culinary Lisbon?
Back in the day, say in the 17th century or so, many priestly garments, nun’s habits, headdresses and such were heavily starched. (For our generation, think Sally Fields lifting off as The Flying Nun and you get the idea.) Can’t you just imagine the intimidating “swish” of the stiffened underskirts as they glided past? Anyway, to get that desired stiff and glossy finish, they used beaten egg whites.
But this practice of basically painting their clothes with meringue made for a whole lot of leftover egg yolks lying around monastery and convent kitchens and laundry rooms. What to do? Wasting them would surely be a sin, would it not? Such thrifty folk couldn’t simply toss such golden goodness down the drain.
So the nuns in the kitchens began inventing a lot of special dishes to use up all those otherwise-to-be-wasted egg yolks. (Apparently gluttony must have been seen as a sin of a lesser order than waste.) As it happens, there was also a sugar cane refinery next door to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monastery in the Belém area southwest of Lisbon, so sweet desserts, cakes and pastries became the use-up-the-egg-yolks recipes of choice. Convenient how that worked out, no? Clearly, the religious folks there dined well and often.
Pastéis de Belém as Financial Savior
The sweet egg tarts might have remained safely hidden away within the walls of the convent and monastery of Jerónimos forever, fattening only the prayerful and lucky few. But in 1820, there was a liberal revolution in Portugal, and things did not go well for religious institutions. By 1834, monasteries and convents had been closed down and the inhabitants lost all public and government support. The days of dining on sweet pastries were over. They were left to fend for themselves and hunger was looming.
In order to survive, the nuns from the Jerónimos monastery had the idea to begin selling their delicious egg tarts. The sugar refinery had a small store attached, and this became the first outlet for the Pastéis de Belém (Pastéis is plural for pastel, which means cake or pastry in Portuguese.) Eventually, the nuns sold the recipe to the refinery bakery.
At around that same time, the grandeur of the Manueline architectural style of the monastery itself (which is beyond amazing in its size, wedding-cake ornamentation, and beauty) and the nearby Tower of Belém, became popular tourist attractions with the good folk of Lisbon. They could take a steamboat from the city for a day excursion and sail right up to the monastery’s own docks. The fame of the delicious sweet treats sold at the sugar refinery store, now officially known as Pasteís de Belém, began to spread. By 1837, their popularity had outgrown the small store, and the baking moved to larger premises about 100 meters away. The visitors quickly made their pilgrimages to the new location.
They are still doing it today. Now they come in hordes, both locals and tourists. But these tarts are so good almost nobody minds standing in line for them.
A Secret Signed in Blood?
Even 180 years ago, when the recipe was first passed on to the sugar company, the secret of making the perfect Pastéis de Belém was entrusted only to a few “master confectioners.” That still holds true today. And those few who do know it are sworn to secrecy. One guide told me, in hushed tones, that it is a blood oath. Another said it was a signed and sealed sacred legal contract. Then he added that the few people who know it are never allowed to all travel together. Imagine if they were all lost! He rolled his eyes and shuddered quite dramatically while telling the story. Apocryphal or not, it’s a good one, you must admit.
There was a line outside when I got to the Café Pastéis de Belém, just as I had been told to expect. I had also been told it would move pretty quickly. But I was hungry, my feet hurt from wandering the vast halls and lovely cloisters of the Monastery, and I felt like sitting down. So instead of getting in the take-out line, I went in the door to its left, which had no line at all, and into the café itself.
The place is much larger inside than it looks from the street, with many tables winding through several small rooms. Except for the very busiest times of day, it’s generally possible to find a seat without much of a wait. If it looks full, just keep wandering through the corridors towards the back, through room after room, until you find a free table.
You will also find clean bathrooms inside as well as a glass window where you can watch the magic happening in the kitchens as the bakers produce dozens upon dozens of tarts as well as other bakery treats.
I found a seat at a table in a front room, beside a wall covered in traditional blue-and-white Portuguese tiles. In only a few minutes, I’d ordered a pastel and a galea—a tall glass of milky coffee. There are also beer, soft drinks and other options on the menu, but for me, a coffee drink is the perfect accompaniment.
As I bit into this warm piece of heaven, the look on my face must have been like something out of a movie—a sort of Meg Ryan look in “When Harry Met Sally” prompting the woman at a neighboring table to say “I’ll have what she’s having!” The young German couple at the next table started to chuckle. Then with sign language, they offered to take a photo of me enjoying my treat. How could I refuse?
First, you realize your tart is so fresh it is still warm, just out of the oven. The first thing your mouth encounters is the crust. It’s super flaky, like a thousand layers of phyllo-type dough have been gently laid atop each other, with crispy bits offering gentle resistance. Then you reach the warm custard, soft, almost-but-not-quite runny enough that you think it really has melted in your mouth. The top is lightly blackened is spots, like the best crème brulée. Shakers of powdered sugar and cinnamon are offered on the table. Add them if you like—or you must—but necessary they are not.
Ordering a single tart was a mistake obvious from that first bite. It was never going to be enough. I ordered another as soon as the waiter passed by. When I asked him how many of these delightful treats are swallowed here or toted out the door every day, he happily answered. “We bake 20-22,000 on a normal day.” While I was still blinking at that enormous number, he added, “but on special days, holidays and such, it can be 40,000.”
Yeah, you might say that Pastéis de Belém are just a mite popular.
If your goal on heading to the Café Pastéis de Belém is to have some of the tarts to take home for later, my advice is still to go inside and find a seat, order a pastel and a coffee, enjoy it at your table, order more to go, which your waiter will happily bring all wrapped up in a lovely box, and then go on your way. You’ll have your pastéis to take home, you will have had a nice break and a treat, and you will probably still have saved time!
If you can’t wait until you get back to your hotel to tuck into that pretty blue-and-white box for more, the tranquil Jardim de Belém park, directly across the street from the café, makes a refreshing spot to sit and down another one—or more.
Good Pastel de Nata Beyond Belém
While the original Pateís de Belém recipe is so secret is has never been precisely duplicated—and likely never will be—you will find similar egg tarts everywhere you go in Lisbon. These copycats are called Pastel de Nata and their quality ranges from excellent to good to meh to awful… basically a dollop of thickened custard pudding in a pre-baked mini pie crust, and the whole thing’s been in the display case too long. Most of the Pastel de Nata I had was quite good, and I would have been happy to have it every day, had I never eaten the real deal in Belém.
The best Pastel de Nata I ate in Lisbon, almost, but not quite, as good as the original, was at a small café just outside the entry gates to the Castelo San Jorge at the top of the city. Its name, appropriately and accurately, is The World Needs Nata. The tart was served warm, and I had it with a glass of galea. The custard was rich and smooth, the pastry light and crispy. When I came out from exploring the castle a couple of hours later, I sat down and ordered another!
My personal bottom line for Lisbon: Do not—repeat, DO NOT—fail to make the trip out to Belém while you are in this beautiful city. There is much to see and do there, including the Monastery, the amazing collection in the Coach museum, the Monument of the Discoveries, the Belém Tower and the Presidential Palace, among others.
But for me all that is icing on the tart. The TRUE reason to go to Belém is the egg custard bites, the true, the original, the one-and-only Pastéis de Belém, eaten right where they were created some 200 years ago.
As for me, I am jonesing for more Pastéis de Belém as I write this. And since I quite fell in love with Lisbon on my last trip and have plans to go back as soon as possible, I have no intention whatever of looking for a recovery program for my addiction. On my next arrival in this gorgeous city on the Tagus River, I’ll hit the ground running—toward the first tram that will get me out to Belém, a tall glass of galea, and a plate full of warm, crispy-crusted, runny-fillinged goodness. With my plate of Pastéis de Belém before me and a look of total joy and satisfaction on my face, I will be fine once more. Just look for me there.
For more information about the original Pastéis de Belém and more pictures of the bakery and restaurant, visit their website here.
Café Pastéis de Belém
Rua de Belém, 84-92
Belém, Lisbon, Portugal
Open 8 am -11 pm in winter, 8 am–midnight in summer
The World Needs Nata Café
Rua de Santa Cruz do Castelo 7,
Open daily, 9:00 am-9:00 pm
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