Thursday 21 July 2011

Nuns and tarts in historic Belém

Patisseries are as ubiquitous in Lisbon as they are in Paris, only they're called pastelarias. Probably the most famous pastelaria of all is the one in Belém where Portugal's best-known pastry export, the pastel de nata (custard tart) originated. 

Pastéis de nata can be found all over the world, from my local coffee shop in north London, to South Africa/Australia/Hong Kong or pretty much anywhere where Luso-Brazilian communities congregate. But it all started almost two hundred years ago, right here in Belém, just outside the city of Lisbon ...

... with a recipe developed by nuns in the next-door Jerónimos monastery in the early 1800s. Their original recipe is the one still used at Pastéis de Belém and is a closely guarded secret known only to the master confectioners here.
It doesn't look that big from the outside, but inside is a seemingly endless series of haphazardly connected, cavernous rooms, all decorated with the classic blue and white azulejos (tiles) of the 18th century, wrought iron doors and lanterns ...

It is permanently busy, always crowded. But the seeming chaos is overseen by implacable and efficient waiters who keep the orders moving smoothly and efficiently, while checking politely that the relentless stream of customers are satisfied and gently advising the tourists that a sprinkling of cinnamon is de rigeur and will enhance the flavour of the legendary pastries ...

They look pretty ordinary as pastries go, but one bite of these, feather-light and freshly piping hot from the oven, and you're in pastry heaven, guaranteed. Three or four pastéis later (yes, they are that seriously addictive) and you're in danger of slipping into a pastry coma ...

And in the front foyer of the house, a separate take-away business flourishes. Ever since 1837 locals (and more recently tourists) have flocked to this place to buy their original-version pastéis de nata as take-aways, warm from the oven. On any day of the week you will see queues snaking out the door and down the street ...

On week-days they sell a staggering average of 12 000 pastéis de nata over the counter every day, and on weekend days closer to 20 000!

... though in typical Portuguese fashion, there's always a moment to spare for a chat with special customers ...

Stumbling back out into the street this last Sunday morning, post-pastel-de-nata-fest, we found ourselves in the midst of marching bands and the changing of the guard at the president's palace. I wriggled into a spot behind this cute little chap (top left), who started barking furiously (from the safe vantage-point of his mistress's arms) as the big boys of the parade approached ...

... and then followed the guards down the road to the place where the pastry business began - the monastery of Jerónimos  ... 

... better known, to be fair, as the site where, in the heyday of Portuguese expansionism, ships departed and returned from their voyages of discovery to Africa and the East. Built by the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator), fleets and their crews were blessed here before leaving on their epic journeys to unknown worlds.

At midday on Sunday the monastery was cleared of casual visitors for the Angelus, as the bells tolled at 12.00, and a sung mass identical to the one the 15th century sailors would have attended (except for no longer being in Latin) ...

The explorer Vasco da Gama is entombed here (bottom right), along with Camoes, poet and chronicler of the sea voyages (top left) and other famous poets and writers including Fernando Pessoa.

... Portugal's rich history all wrapped up in the humble custard tart.


  1. Dear Karen, Did you write this post just for me? Thank you for including such beautiful and clear photographs of Azulejos. All of your photographs are so original. I love the way you see a scene. Have you told us why you are visiting Portugal. Are you writing a book? I hope so.

  2. Very beautiful photographies. Thank you to share with us.
    I love your little pets and Nicola is so cute !


  3. Dear Karen,
    this is quickly a very short comment, just to let you know that I'm visiting your blog. Being so involved at the moment with our annual Music Festival, not enough time to go through all your wonderful posts. More time end of next week, hopefully. Like to enjoy every image and moment of your 'reportages' which are simply good, as usual!!!
    Heartily greetings,

  4. what a wonderful post and that first of the espresso is just so great!! a very nice treat of a post...Thank you !!


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