There’s not much that has not already been written about Pastéis de Belém. Talk to any Lisbon resident about what to do or where to go in the city and eating these custard tarts where they were originally made, near the Jerónimos Monastery in the Belém area of Lisbon, is usually one of their first suggestions. Once you’ve been there you’ll have at least one reason to come back to Portugal. Really. Honestly. They are that good.
For lovers of pastéis de nata – the more standard version of the tarts found in every café across Portugal and many good cafés beyond – a Pastel de Belém (pastel is the singular of pastéis, which simply means cakes) is the pinnacle of the nata. They are both crunchier and creamier than the run-of-the-mill counterparts. The café’s pastry chefs cook batches of them all day long and they are served warm. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon and icing sugar if the extra calories are not a concern and you will be in cake heaven. I was assured each cake was a mere 140 calories.
According to Miguel Clarinha, one of the café’s managers, and a member of the fourth generation of his family to run this business and national institution, on an average day the Única Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém (The Only Pasteis de Belém Factory – yes, that’s it’s official name) makes 20,000 custard tarts for its customers and, “on a busy day we sometimes make up to 50,000.”
The recipe was originally cooked up by the monks at the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, but with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1820s the monks were kicked out and their recipe was taken on by a local entrepreneur. In 1837 he got together with the owners of a nearby – and when I say nearby it’s just a couple of hundred yards to the monastery – sugar factory and grocery shop to provide the cakes to the public. As time went by the cakes provided more and more of the income for the business and the sugar factory closed down to open up rooms for cake lovers to eat the Pastéis de Belém along with fashionable cups of coffee and tea.
Although you can find pasteis de nata just about anywhere in Portugal the specific recipe for these cakes is a closely–guarded secret that only Miguel Clarinha’s father, Pedro and five master pastry chefs know. The recipe itself is kept in a safe. At the factory, which is far more hands on than the name might suggest, there is a room that only those six people are allowed to enter called the “secret workshop”. There the senior pastry chefs make up the pastry for the tarts as well as the custard to fill the pastry shells.
Once the pastry has left the workshop it is allowed to rest then it is rolled out, cut into small pieces and hand pressed into pastry cases. Huge trays of these cases are then placed under a machine that squirts the custard into them. They take about 20 minutes to cook at 400 degrees C. The high heat gives the tarts their characteristic charred tops. As they cool they sink slightly and are ready to serve to the hungry hordes.
A Única Fábrica dos Pasteis de Belém
Rua de Belém, Nº84 a 92
1300-085, Lisboa – Portugal