Visit Lisbon for the century-old Pastéis de Belém
Pastéis de Belém are famous for a couple of reasons. Taste and history. Portuguese take pride in their Pastéis de Belém, and the story goes that in the 18th century, convents and monastries used huge quantities of eggs to starch their uniforms. The unused and leftover egg yokes were used by the monks in making assorted pastries and cakes. In 1820, however, a revolution led to monasteries being shut down. The monks, in an attempt to find other sources of income, turned to what they knew best, making egg based pastries. In Belém, Lisbon, where Pastéis de Belém was created, the monks moved from Jerónimos Monastery (Portuguese: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) to a nearby sugar refinery where they baked Pastéis de Belém to sell. Eventually and in 1837 the monks sold their highly treasured secret recipe to a family of entrepreneurs who opened, Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém.
I had stood watching in complete amazement at the Jerónimos Monastery (Portuguese: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) both before and after sampling the delights of Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, wondering how a group of monks had contributed so enormously to the world of pastries. Perhaps the sheer size, intricate design and the golden look of their abode after sunset served as inspiration. Perhaps their sweet tooth and lots of time on their hands had more to do with it. Necessity as the saying goes is the mother of all inventions, so perhaps losing the monastery played the biggest part.
As usual there were throngs of both locals and tourists in a queue to get into Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. Some ordered their pastries to take away, whilst others, including myself, shuffled along to find a good table. After two requests to change tables I finally managed to secure one in the heart of the main seating area. As I looked around I noticed the little things and details that makes this place special.
The waiting staff were friendly and ever eager to help. The first one I beckoned over did not speak English and as my Portuguese is non existent we got into a bit of an impasse. He quickly beckoned over another waiting staff who spoke English, but curiously enough he stood around, I think in an attempt to practice his broken English on me. I was delighted to play my part.
The menu had more than just Pastéis de Belém. I ordered a tasty ham quiche alongside some Pastéis de Belém. The Pastéis de Belém cost about 1 Euro 30 each which I thought was great value. My girlfriend had a beef croquette and hot chocolate whilst I had coffee. We ordered more Pastéis de Belém to takeaway.
One of the biggest challenges of good pastries and indeed every great products is protection against copying. The recipe for Pastéis de Belém is closely guarded. Apparently the criteria for selecting the “mestre” or the master pastry chef in whose hands or rather “head” in which the recipe is entrusted is as follows. They have to be tall, not drink or smoke and I guess most importantly be trustworthy. The number of the master chefs are few – less than 5 out of the 80 strong Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém staff. The mestres, according to an insider, can never “travel together, never eat the same food in the same restaurant and never ride in the same car.”
I was at the Istanbul’s Hafiz Mustafa 1864 a few months ago. Along with Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, these are some of the most famous and historical bakeries in the world. Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém can sell up to an incredible 50,000 Pastéis de Belém a day and is open every single day of the year. If you ever happen to be in Lisbon make sure you sample a few of these crispy and creamy tarts. It is an absolute must and perhaps counts as my two favourite things to do in Lisbon, alongside the incredible castelo de Pina. This is pure Portuguese magic. The famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea would have travelled half the world himself, just to take a bite out of a Pastel de Belém.