What's Special About the Pasteis de Belem of Lisbon?

What's Special About the Pasteis de Belem of Lisbon?
Cream pastries or tarts are one of the most popular specialties of Portuguese sweets Photo Credit: Shutterstock

With only three people privy to the secret recipe of Pasteis de Belem, you cannot ignore the famous delicacy only available at this shop in Portugal’s capital city

Uttara Gangopadhyay
September 08 , 2020
04 Min Read

Essentially, flaky puff pastry shells with creamy yolk-based filling caramelised on top, cream pastries or custard tarts are a popular dessert in Portugal. But not all cream pastries in Portugal are Pasteis de Belem, ardent fans of this dessert will not forget to remind you. To them, everything else is Pasteis de Nata.

And to know the reason why, you have to visit the Unica Fabrica Dos Pasteis De Belem, the café and bakery, located in Belem (to the west of Lisbon), which has been making these custard tarts since 1837 with a secret recipe.


The facade of the most famous pastry shop of Lisbon

It is said that the custard (made from egg yolk) tarts were originally made by the monks of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Heironymite Monastery) in Belem. Apparently, the monks used egg white to starch their habits and the egg yolk to make custards. But when the monastery had to shut down in 1834 following the 1820 liberal revolution across Portugal, someone offered the sweet custard tarts for sale at the next door general store, probably for a living. The dessert, known as Pasteis de Belem, was an instant hit and became popular among visitors who came to see the monastery and the Torre de Belém (the Belém Tower).

The general store, which was attached to a sugar refinery, started baking the Pasteis de Belem from 1837, after acquiring the secret recipe from the monastery. Even today, the recipe remains a secret, known only to three people, who prepare the ingredients in a special ‘secret’ room.  As the official website says, ‘the only true ‘Pasteis de Belém’ contrive, by means of a scrupulous selection of ingredients, to offer even today the flavour of the time-honoured Portuguese sweet-making’.

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A post shared by Pastéis de Belém® (@pasteisbelem) on May 10, 2017 at 9:17am PDT

Briefly, the process begins with the preparation of puff pastry doughs from which small pieces are cut off and pressed into tiny bowl-like moulds. The job of pressing the dough base into the moulds is done exclusively by women (remember how only women can pluck the two leaves and a bud of Darjeeling tea?). The bowls with dough, arranged in trays, are taken to be filled after being refrigerated. The trays pass beneath mechanical custard dispensers. The filled tarts are baked at a predesignated temperature and served warm.

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A post shared by Pastéis de Belém® (@pasteisbelem) on Aug 20, 2020 at 6:01am PDT

Prior to the pandemic, the bakery used to sell nearly 20,000 custard tarts a day. Although the long queue for takeaway is yet to return, their place now taken by the café staff in masks and visors dispensing sanitisers to guests trickling in to the café and bakery, do make a note not to miss Pasteis de Belem if you are visiting Lisbon when travel resumes.

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