Portugal’s most famous pastry is the pastel de nata (or pastéis de nata), an egg custard tart pastry with a flaky crust. The top looks almost like a crème brûlée and they are often served hot with powdered sugar and cinnamon. In Lisbon and Porto, it was tough to go more than a block or two without seeing these in a bakery storefront.
I didn’t want to just try a pastel de nata, I wanted to try the original: the pastéis de Belém. Pastéis de Belém is also the name of the bakery in the Portuguese city of Belém, where these special tarts are sold. Since this bakery is the only place because the recipe is still a secret, I made a point of trying a few pastels in Lisbon for a point of reference.
Beginning in 1837, the bakery began making pastéis de Belém based on a recipe passed on from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Heironyite Monastery) after all convents and monasteries were shut down in 1834. To this day, this recipe has been kept confidential to everyone except the confectioners and has remained unchanged. So, pastéis de nata is essentially a knockoff version of the pastéis de Belém.
Getting to the bakery in Belém from Lisbon was incredibly easy. We took the train from the Cais do Sodre station in Lisbon three stops to Belém. Travel time is only around 15 minutes.
After We Got There:
We were told to be prepared to stand in a long line, but there was not much of a wait when we went on a Sunday in the early evening. The bakery has indoor seating and table service so we opted to sit down and relax. We ordered 4 Pastéis de Belém since the tarts are fairly small and I am not big on sharing desserts (it’s a thing).
Taste Test Results:
Totally worth it for me. The pastéis de Belém are served warm with cinnamon and powdered sugar on the side. They are really balanced in consistency and flavor. The custard has a slightly firmer egg consistency that allows it to stay together and not spill over after a bite. The crust was perfectly flaky, but not so much so that it would get everywhere. My boyfriend, who is not a big dessert fan and does not like things that are overly sweet, enjoyed these because there was a hint of sweetness, but nothing overpowering. I added powdered sugar and cinnamon to one of mine to try it, but it wasn’t necessary.
Very few things in life are better than the original and these pastéis have survived over a century. Don’t get me wrong, throughout my time in Portugal, I got to eat many delicious, warm pastels de nata. However, there was definitely a difference: the hint of sweetness plus the crispiness. One last thing to remember: don’t feel guilty eating them because they can technically be considered both historical and educational.