Lisbon’s sweet legacy
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pasteis - By Allan Leibowitz

Like much else in Portugal, we can thank the Catholic Church for one of the country’s most recognised delicacies, the custard tart – or Pastel de Nata, which literally means ‘cream pastry’.

Legend has it that the nuns at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, near today’s Lisbon central train station, always had a surplus of egg yolks after using large quantities of whites to starch the monks’ habits.

They combined these yolks with sugar to create the rich custard filling which was baked into a puff pastry case to create the Pastel de Nata.

When the monastery closed, the recipe was sold to the sugar refinery, whose owners in 1837 opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. That factory is still in operation today – in fact, it is one of the most popular eateries in the greater Lisbon area and certainly worthy of a visit and a taste.

Known today as Pastéis de Belém, the bakery and café is situated near the monastery, in the heart of the Belem tourist strip, at 84 – 92 Rua de Belém.

As Lisbon has grown in popularity, more people have discovered the home of the Portuguese tart, as it is widely known around the world, and the old factory is no longer a hidden gem. Instead, you can expect queues to get in and a wait for a table, if you’re keen to eat them hot out of the oven, washed down with rich, strong espresso coffee. There are also queues for take-away orders.

But it is certainly worth the wait. When you do find a table, the service is fast and efficient - helped by the fact that for most orders, it’s not a matter of ‘what’, but rather ‘how many’. There are other items on the menu, but frankly, it’s nothing short of blasphemy to order anything but the factory’s gift to international cuisine.

And while you’re there, take a walk around the labyrinth of dining rooms and passages, and you’ll get to see where the magic happens through observation windows onto the production line.

While the Belem bakery is the only business entitled to use the Pasteis de Belem name, much like only the Champagne region being permitted to call its bubbly “Champagne”, the delicacy is widely available throughout Portugal, and several Lisbon pastry shops have loyal followers who swear theirs are the “best in the west”.

One of those, Manteigaria, in Lisbon’s trendy Bairro Alto (2 Rua do Loreto), is housed in a former butter factory – hence the name (manteiga is ‘butter’ in Portuguese).

Like Belem, the only secret at Manteigaria is the recipe, but the process is in full view and visitors are welcome to watch the pastry shells being rolled, the egg custard being prepared and the delicacies entering and leaving the giant ovens.

Because of its popularity and referrals from local tour guides, Manteigaria, unfortunately, also fills up during the holiday season. Again, like Belem, the service is efficient and quick, so you won’t wait long. One word of advice though: if you order two pasteis (plural of pastel), thinking you’ll take one with you for later, think again. Not many people can stop after just one.

If eating Pasteis de Nata is not enough of an “experience” for you, you can try your hand at baking them in the heart of Lisbon at another famed bakery, Pastelaria Batalha (1 Rua Horta Seca, Praça Luís de Camões). ...

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