On the fringes of Lisbon, there’s the picturesque Belém, a waterfront historic quarter where in years past, many of Portugal’s important expeditions set sail. Sure, the imposing Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monastery that contains the tombs of kings and queens and explorer Vasco da Gama, is a draw to Belém.
But the real reason for the pilgrimage to Belém for me and Mister M—and hundreds of thousands other people each year—was to stop at a nearby pastry shop called the Cafe Pastéis de Belém, home to the little gems of Portugese baking: Pastéis de Belém.
Once you’ve taken a bite you will understand why these confections are so special. The shell is made from a buttery and flaky massa folhada, Portugal’s version of puff pastry. Inside, a luscious, warm custard calls your name, over and over again.
At the confeitaria, I got a glipse of heaven with no real chance of ever actually entering its pearly gates. I struggled to deal with the sad reality that I would never be able to replicate this recipe and unless I returned to Lisbon, I would never again taste these pastries with their blanket of powdered sugar and a tap of cinnamon.
You see, the Pastéis de Belém recipe has been the same since the mid-1800’s and they guard it like St. Peter protects heaven’s gate. The rumor is that only three people know the full recipe. Each day, each baker pumps out two hundred pastéis an hour—making the custard and dough in a locked room, quarantined from the prying eyes of the masses who want to know secret to the recipe.
It’s this mystique that keeps the confeitaria’s multiple dining rooms filled every day, all day long. Azulejos adorn the restaurant’s walls where a cross section of tourists and locals knock back piles of pastéis between sips of strong Portuguese coffee.
The owners registered the name in 1911 to insure that only the pastries that come out their ovens can be called Pastéis de Belém. Imposters can be found elsewhere in Lisbon under the name pastéis de nata, or custard pastries– but they just aren’t the same. Those other generic Pastéis convinced me that there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that I will be able successfully replicate this Lisbon memory. But I’ve at least got that memory.