If there are two things I know about myself, it’s that I hate crowds, and I hate hype. And yet, here I am, writing about one of Lisbon’s most-hyped exports: Portuguese egg custard tarts, or pastéis de nata, that hail from a specific bakery, Pastéis de Belém: a bakery that features in every guidebook and on every Lisbon tour and has a queue of tourists, sometimes snaking down to the end of the block, year round. Not to mention, pastéis de nata can be found in bakeries and cafés across the country.
“You must try these ones,” someone said to me years ago when I said I’d tried pastéis de nata before. “These are special.” (I later learnt she’d had someone stand in one of those horrifically long queues to secure these tarts for tea.)
So, why is it that Lisboetas still worship this particular pasteleria? The answer, it turns out, is because they’re quite literally “sacred” in a sense.
The story goes something like this: In the neighborhood of Belém, where the bakery is now situated, there was a sugar refinery located by Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Hieronymite Monastery). Following the Portuguese Liberal Revolution in 1820, when the clergy were expelled, monks and nuns took to baking to survive, which is how the pastries came to fruition.
“They sold these [pastries] in a small store [located] where our front counter is today,” says Miguel Clarinha, owner of Pastéis de Belém, “a bit like a convenience store that sold a bit of everything.” It’s unclear as to whether there was some sort of a business arrangement between the monastery and the sugar refinery, says Clarinha: “What we know is that the recipe was invented in the monastery, and that it arrived here [in the current premises] around 1836 to 1837.”
At the time, Belém wasn’t the convenient three-mile tram ride from central Lisbon as it is today. A trip to Belém meant a trip via steam boat, where one arrived fatigued to be awestruck at the beauty of the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) before sampling the pastries everyone spoke of when they visited.
And in 1837 itself, the corner shop that was known for selling the pastries from the monastery transformed into a full-fledged bakery. Through the years, the “secret recipe” for the pastries has been passed down—unchanged from its cloistered origins—to a handful of master confectioners (just four at present!).
Clarinha’s family, who have owned the business for four generations, currently employ 200 people. “The production is all handmade, all original, as it was in the beginning,” says Clarinha, “so we need a lot of people working, just making the [pastries].”
With seating for 400 people and the bakery open seven days a week, it’s only understandable that the workforce is equally as substantial. But as for the tourists, says Clarinha, it wasn’t always like this. “Today it’s maybe 50/50 tourists and locals, but around 20 years ago, it was maybe 70 percent Portuguese [customers] and 30 percent [tourists].”
It was really only in the 20th century when there were regular steamboats and tramlines from Lisbon to Belém that business grew. The main turning point for the business, as for all big businesses in Portugal, explains Clarinha, was the Carnation Revolution of 1974, which overthrew the country’s authoritarian government and ended fascist rule.
So, is Pastéis de Belém special?
“Of course!” says Clarinha with a chuckle. “I think the biggest reason why this business has been able to keep on growing for such a long time, to keep the customers [it has] and to get new customers, is because the original recipe from the monastery has been kept exactly as it was.”
Naturally, being entirely handmade, this pastéis de nata is expensive, adds Clarinha, “but I think that’s what makes the difference in the end in terms of the quality of the product—it connects [the pastry] with its history.”
And that’s what you get when you bite into the silky, melt-in-your-mouth custard and flaky crust of the pastries at Pastéis de Belém: a bite of history. Sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and washed down with a double shot of espresso (that is, a doppio in Portuguese), these pastries really are unique. I’ve become one of those people who tell first-time visitors to Lisbon, “You must try these ones—they’re special.”