If you find yourself in the beautiful Portuguese capital of Lisbon, you are definitely going to want to eat some pastel de nata, the famous Portuguese egg tarts. They are an almost universal culinary symbol of Lisbon, and you’ll see them everywhere you go in the city. But why not have the best, the original, the most famous, made from the 180+-year-old still-secret recipe? And those egg tarts you can only taste at the original Café Pastéis de Belém.
The delicate, sweet-but-not-too-sweet original egg tart was created sometime in the early 19th century. Nuns connected to the nearby San Jeronimo Monastery used beaten egg whites as starch to stiffen their habits and wimples and the priestly garments of the monks. But that left them with a whole lot of egg yolks to use up. Since there was a sugar refinery right next door, it was convenient to sweeten up those yolks and use them in a pastry. Pastéis de Belém was the result.
Location: As its name implies, Café Pastéis de Belém is located in the Belém neighborhood, at Rua de Belém, 84-92. It’s about a 15-20 minute tram ride from the center of Lisbon and approximately 100 meters from the fantastical Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the monastery where the recipe was first created (and which you should definitely visit). In 1834, after the monasteries and convents were closed by the government, the nuns sold the recipe to the sugar refinery, which opened a café. It moved to its present location in 1837 and has been serving up the pastéis there ever since.
Menu: Café Pastéis de Belém offers a menu of light meals, snacks, and pizza by the slice as well as a long list of bakery items and a full coffee list. Snacks include tostis, a Portuguese version of a grilled sandwich, with ingredients like cheese, meats, or tomatoes. There is an array of sandwiches and snacks, such as chicken drumsticks, cod croquettes, duck pie, puff pastry stuffed with meat, and fried chicken dumplings. There is also a pretty complete list of wines, beers, soda and juices along with all the coffee drinks you’d expect.
But it’s the pastéis you came all this way for. Whatever else you eat, leave room for a pastéis or three.
Thoughts: When you eat here, you are also eating a historic and closely guarded secret. The original recipe for the tarts is entrusted only to a very few master confectioners. Their promise never to reveal it is rumored to be a “blood oath.” Today, the café bakes and serves 20-22,000 egg tarts on a regular day. On a “big” day, like a holiday, that number can rise to 40,000. Yes, that is the correct number of zeros. Each one of them is made exactly to that time-honored recipe, by hand, using traditional methods.
Why are they so incredibly popular? Well, they come from the kitchen so fresh they are still hot. The crust is both light and crunchy, composed of what seems like a thousand layers of flaky pastry laced with butter. The filling is creamy, rich, and not overly sweet. On the table, shakers of powdered sugar and cinnamon invite you to personalize them.
Other items on the menu are fine. The pizza I ate was not the best I’ve ever had, but it was quite acceptable. The tostis are mostly delectable. And the many other pastries on offer are perfect. Truth is, though, I wouldn’t care if everything else was awful. The pastéis alone are worth the trip.
Price Range: Prices are extremely reasonable. A pair of egg tarts and a coffee drink will run you about €4.00-5.00. Snacks begin at €1.50. Tostis are €2.50-5.00
Additional Thoughts: There is almost always a line outside the café, sometimes very long. Don’t let that put you off. This is the take-out line. Inside you’ll find a huge and winding maze of rooms with enough tables to seat about a thousand people. From the street, enter through the door to the left of the one with the line. Keep going through the many rooms until you find a free table. If the weather is nice, look for a spot in the pleasant courtyard. In just moments, a friendly if hurried waiter will arrive to take your order.
For hotels in Lisbon, take a look at the reviews and price comparisons found here.
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