Pastéis de Belém

Pastéis de Belém

It snowed last night! Only enough to dust over the rooftops and tree branches a thin layer of white powder (like icing sugar, which I’ll come back to) but enough for me to be so excited at seeing snow in London that I lugged my massive camera with me to school to see if I could snap some pretty pictures after morning classes. But when I emerged from my building at lunchtime the snow had become a slushy rain, washing away my hopes for a picture of a delicately snowy London.

Know where it didn’t snow? Lisbon. It was around 15 degrees Celsius the entire time we were there, and over Christmas we walked around under the sunny blue skies in t-shirts. I’m jumping around a bit here but I’ve been wanting to rave about these pastéis (read pa-STAYSH, which is Portuguese for ‘pastries’) for a long time.

Officially known as pastéis de nata (cream pastries), I was on the hunt for these bad boys the minute I landed in Lisbon. They were plentiful in pastry shops all over the world and were all very good. But, I was tipped off by my guidebook and by Jasmine Y. that the best ones were to be found in a cafe in the nearby town of Belém. They were supposed to be the best in the world.

So, on our last full day in Lisbon, Allan and I got on a little yellow tram headed toward Belém, ostensibly to check out the charming sights, but really we were just killing time until it was a reasonable hour to have an afternoon snack so we could try these world-famous pastéis. I was skeptical, seeing as often how things that are labelled “best in the world” end up being hyperbole. And I’d had excellent pastéis in Markham, Macau (a former Portuguese colony) and elsewhere in Lisbon.

But one bite and oh…we knew it was true. The layers of pastry were much more crisp than any other pastéis I’ve tried, shattering into a million tiny pieces between my teeth. The cream was so silky and smooth that I wanted to bathe in it. The top is caramelized just so to give you a sweet but not burnt taste sensation. They’re served to you still warm from the oven, with shakers of cinnamon and icing sugar on the tables for you to dust your pastéis before you devour them. I ate my pastéis in reverent silence, and thought fondly of a few friends who I know would’ve loved to have been there eating pastéis with us (Kerwin, Jasmine, Heather, mom). Allan and I ordered five pastéis during our first go-round, inhaled two each, looked at the fifth one and then each other, and immediately ordered one more, knowing that neither of us wanted to share the last one.

The cafe itself is a thing to behold, appropriately named Pastéis de Belém. It seats 2,000 (yes, that’s 3 zeros) and must churn out many thousand pastries daily. They’ve been making these pastéis since 1837, with a carefully guarded secret recipe. There are other foods on offer but why would you ever order anything else?

Back in snowy/wet London, Allan and I were at a market this weekend and saw some pastéis on offer, but both knew that we ought not buy them lest we be terribly disappointed that they don’t live up to Pastéis de Belém. I dare say the trip to Lisbon was worth it for these tarts alone.