The Pastries of Belem (Pasteis de Belem)

Written by Mark McElroy

Guidebooks and locals agree: in Lisbon, the Thing You Must Do is have a pastel de nata — a Portuguese egg custard pastry.

They’re easy to come by, since every bakery in town cranks them out by the truckload. You’ll seem them in window after window: little round pastries, about the size of a Kennedy half-dollar. You know those little tarts some dim sum restaurants sell? With the dense, vaguely sweet eggy filling? That’s the pastel de nata’s Chinese cousin.

But that’s where the resemblance ends. Those Chinese treats are machine-made; the pastel de nata is made by hand. The Chinese tart has a moist, mushy crust; the pastel de nata’s crust is crispier and flakier. And while the Chinese dan tat pastry filling tends to be either bright yellow or sunrise orange, the egg custard used in the pastel de nata is scorched on top, the way a good cheese toast will be when broiled just so.

And if you want the authentic experience, not just any pastel de nata will do. No, you must board a sleek streetcar, ride out to the Belem neighborhood, and join the long line snaking around the block from the front door of Pasteis de Belem, *the* bakery, considered to have *the* secret recipe that all the others have been attempting to copy since 1837.

(Here’s a tip, scored from our wonderful Lisbon Explorer guide, Paolo: don’t get in that line. Instead, bypass the line, walk right in, and head for the back of this cavernous establishment. There, in any of the sprawling rooms, you can take a seat, order your pastries and coffee, and have them brought to you by a handsome waiter. Trust me: this is definitely better than waiting in line!)

Are the pastries here really that much better? Ah, my friend, you are asking the wrong question. A tart from Pasteis de Belem will be fresh, and this does much to enhance the flavor. But the real charm of these particular treats is the pastry pilgrimage you take to acquire them: the streetcar ride, the stroll down the street, the bustle of the busy bakery, the joy of sneaking past the line.

You settle in your seat. You place your order. You sip your hot coffee. You watch the locals. You chat with your family.You wait.

And then, you lift the little pastry to your mouth and bite into the flaky crust and springy custard. It’s warm. It’s soft. It’s just sweet enough.

The pastry is tasty … but the experience is the treat.

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Mark McElroy

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