Pastries were everywhere in Lisbon. I’ve never seen so many pastry shops, pastelarias, and so many different kinds of pastries. King of all: Pastel de Nata, a Portuguese egg tart pastry originally from Portugal but also found in countries with significant Portuguese immigrant populations.
The question became how to narrow it down to which ones to sample. I asked some born and raised Lisbon friends to narrow it down for me. They suggested I start with Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém in Santa Maria de Belém.
The Pastel de Nata Taste-Off Begins
On my first full day in Lisbon, a friend who lives there picked me up from my Sheraton. Of course I let him plan the day.
While walking to his car, we stopped for my second espresso of the day and it was only 9:30 a.m. Those espressos go down way too easily!
As he drove, I had a hunch where he was heading, and I was right. As we pulled into the parking space I saw Pastéis de Belém.
Pastéis de nata was created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. It’s perhaps Portugal’s most famous dessert and can be found just about everywhere around Lisbon. But there is a catch. There is a secret recipe that’s closely guarded here at Pasteis de Belém.
These monks were originally based in France where these pastries could be found in local bakeries. At the time, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, as nuns do.
It was common for monasteries and convents to use the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries, resulting in the proliferation of sweet pastry recipes. Following the extinction of the religious orders, in the face of the impending closure of many of the convents and monasteries in the aftermath of the revolution in 1320, the monks started selling pastéis de nata.
They sold them at a nearby sugar refinery to bring in some revenue. In 1834, the monastery was closed and the recipe was sold to the sugar refinery, whose owners in 1837 opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. The descendants own the business to this day.
A Special Bakery In Santa Maria de Belém
Miguel Clarinha, his father Pedro and cousin Penelope run Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, the bakery and shop that has been in this family for four generations. It was officially opened in 1837 by Domingo Rafael Alves, unrelated to Clarinha’s family, who started production of the tarts after the secularization of the monasteries by the state in 1834.
Residents needed new ways to earn a living.
The recipe that still closely guarded today has its origin in the pastel made at the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, and many say remains one of the most tightly guarded culinary secrets in the land.
The shop has a loyal following because they’ve managed to maintain their unique identity over the years, Clarinha said, protective of an original recipe that’s remained in high demand. The pastries are baked at 400 degrees Celsius.
The best custard tart (unsurprisingly) is one made according to this recipe.
“It’s a unique recipe combined with selected ingredients,” he said. “The fact the pastel are still handmade makes the difference. It is the combination of crispy slightly salty pastry with the sweetness and smoothness of the cream that makes a perfect pastel.”
I had heard that the lines to get into this bakery were always outrageously long and to always be prepared for a long wait, but my local friend knew just how to navigate what turned out to be a huge establishment. In a few minutes we were seated and he had ordered.
Enter: The Smells
Even before the warm tarts arrived the whole place smelled like butter and cinnamon. And somehow I knew that every pastéis de nata I’d consume after this first taste would be compared to these. They were flaky and buttery rather than greasy, the custard wobbled but isn’t at all loose, and they came with a dusting of cinnamon. What held me back from ordering more was knowing I’d be eating these pastries every day and sampling them at as many places as I could! I read an interview with food guide Célia Pedroso, and thought she put it well.
“The filling shouldn’t be very sweet and shouldn’t have any flavors of lemon or vanilla,” she said.
A purist when it comes to the classic pastéis de nata, Pedroso goes on to explain that even good bakeries and cafés around Portugal who’ve tried to be inventive, just spoil the product in the end.
“Just cinnamon sprinkled on top is simply the best pairing for an espresso,” she said. Sharing that her favorite bakeries are Manteigaria in Bairro Alto (which I can attest to being very good), and Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.
And the best time to eat them?
“We eat them at any time of the day, with the morning coffee, in the afternoon.”
As I thought, pastel de nata does taste slightly different from place to place. What it comes down to is the pastry and the filling and how you like them: flaky vs. greasy, or custard filling more wobbly vs. dense. I did indeed try many places that served pastel de nata. Please note that the general cost of a pastel de nata is 1Euro and there is absolutely no reason to pay more!
Best Bets For Pasteis de Nata
1. Pastéis de Belém remains my top choice, and one must for sure you must make a trip to Belem at least once while visiting Lisbon. It’s a charming area, with the monastery to visit and historic monuments on the waterfront side.
2. Manteigaria. The location in Bairro Alto is a crazy crowded small space. If you don’t want to stand at the counter and drink espresso with your pastel de nata, I suggest you do take-away. Go in, shout your order, hand over your Euro, and you’ll get your pastel de nata in a small box with sugar and cinnamon packets. I loved this box idea……brilliant, really. Then off you go to the park or fountain across the street to grab a seat and eat them. The pastry is great and though the custard isn’t as firm as some of the other pastel de nata, I thought it was delicious.
3. Pastelaria Versailles. If you stay at the Sheraton Lisboa as I did, this Pastelaria is a short walk away. Their pastel de nata offers a good combo of great crust and firm custard. And Versailles is the best place of all to sit and enjoy a pastry. You’ll also enjoy the wonderful old world ambiance and people-watching opportunities.
4. Fabrica da Nata: Fabrica’s pastel de nata were on the greasy side though they were served warm and right out of the oven. Great custard even if the pastry was greasy. It’s a fun place to visit and watch the nata being made. There’s also a nice upstairs cafe with big windows so you can watch all the action on the streets.
5. At Your Hotel. When the staff at the Sheraton Lisboa heard I was all over town tasting pastel de nata, they decided I needed to taste the ones at the hotel. The hotel staff said they were great! Room service knocked on my door one afternoon and voila, a beautiful plate of pastel de nata! They were indeed, good, with a lovely presentation which included some fruit as well as sugar and cinnamon for the nata.
Could you spend your whole vacation sampling different pastel de nata around Portugal? Absolutely. Could I eat them every day? Yes! (I did). But just in case pastel de nata isn’t to your liking, stay tuned because I have another article coming up about various pastries to sample in Lisbon. You didn’t think I’d forget to try all the other amazing pastries, did you?