When visiting a capital city, it is hard, as a Londoner, to resist a little game of matching up the different areas with London equivalents. The area just off Rossio for example, we decided was Leicester Square (high concentration of tourists), and our riverside beers were enjoyed on the ‘South Bank’. Our trip out of town to Belém then, to the home of the Pastel de Nata (custard tart), was rather like heading out to the ‘burbs for a day trip. We also made a classic capital city transport error, by getting the train and changing twice (as TFL would no doubt advise you to do), when just a short bus ride would have sufficed; not all parallels were immediately apparent.
Our destination, Pastéis de Belém, was apparently the first place to sell the tarts outside of the spectacular, dream-like Jerónimos monastery (where they were invented) that stands just a few hundred yards away. The tarts are supposedly the best in Lisbon and only 3 or 4 people in the family-run business are privy to the recipe. From the outside, Pastéis de Belém looked like a regular-sized coffee shop but on the inside we discovered room after cavernous room, not a single one of them empty.
Before getting down to the important business of the tarts, we took refreshment in the form of Bock (of course), and some savoury nibbles. The Portugese seem to have a fondness for foods which have been deep fried and then left to go cold; I found some more palatable than others. These salt cod cakes were warm thankfully and very pleasant; simple and light, with soft flakes of fish which didn’t overpower and a grassy lift of parsley. There were a couple of sizeable yet forgettable quiches too and then it was on to the main event. Of course we wanted to know just what was so damn special about these tarts compared to others we’d tried and I’ll admit to being slightly sceptical. When they arrived however, even on first appearances, they did look different. See the Pastéis de Belém tarts in the top photo below and one of my earlier conquests underneath…
You can see that the pastry is much more delicate in the Belém version, and the custard covers the whole surface of the tart rather than being a smooth, sunken pool as above. The pastry was familiarly delicate and flaky, sending a flutter of shattering flakes all down your top with every bite, but there was less of it, meaning more room for that wobbly baked custard, which was slightly less sweet and pleasantly more eggy than the lesser versions. Cinnamon and powdered sugar are provided for sprinkling at the table but I prefer to eat mine as they come. Top tarts indeed.
If I were to find myself in Belém once again, then I would definitely pay a return visit, although I would probably just order Pastéis de Nata and plenty of them; an indecent, towering plateful in fact. I would suggest that any visitor to Lisbon do the same. A national culinary treasure and quite rightly so; go and eat the original and the best.
Café Pastéis de Belém
Rua de Belem, 84-92,
+351 21 363 7423
Winter opening hours (1st Nov-30th April): 08.00-23.00 Mon-Sat, 08.00-22.00 Sun.
Summer opening hours (1st May-31st Oct): 08.00-24.00
N.B. The nearby monastery is closed on a Monday – we were most disappointed.