One of the things I looked forward to experiencing the most when visiting the area of Belem in Lisbon was sampling some of the world renowned pasteis de nata, an egg tart pastry. While one can find pasteis de nata throughout Lisbon, it is at the Casa Pasteis de Belem where they are the most famous and sought after. It’s believed that pasteis de nata were created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jeronimos Monastery, located a couple of blocks away from the Casa. After the religious orders were expelled and convents and monasteries were closed following the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the production of pasteis de nata passed to the Casa and where it has been ever since. Allegedly, the former religious clerics patented and registered the confection in order to keep the recipe secret and distinct while hiring the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem (Casa Pasteis de Belem) to produce pastries based on their original recipe. The secret was apparently given to five master pastry chefs who guarded the original recipe under the Oficina do Segredo (secret workshop), which later passed into the hands of the familial descendants.
As I had read that all of the tourist attractions in Belem (Jeronimos Monastery, Monument to the Discoveries, Belem Tower) can get crowded as the day goes on, I had us visit the Monastery first, then see about food. While we had sampled some pasteis de nata the day before that we bought from a cafe near to our hotel, they were good but nothing would compare with what are served at the Casa. The take out section of the Casa was not too busy but as I didn’t see any seating outside, I opted to forgo it for a table on the inside. I found one that had been recently vacated and thankfully a waitress came over and cleared it not too long after we sat down. I didn’t see a menu but I didn’t need one, as I knew exactly what I wanted. D had certainly eaten his pasteis de nata the day prior but I think at that point it was simply a sweet treat for him. Unlike when you get them in a cafe, if you order them from the sit down portion of the Casa, they come out hot. So just imagine an egg custard tart, just removed from the oven, the shell so crisp and flaky that it immediately breaks upon biting into it. I was rather boring with my drink selection as I opted for just a bottled water, but at least D was cafe-like as he ordered a cafe (coffee) which in Portuguese equates to a capuccino size portion. I had ordered tres (three) pasteis de nata and we rapidly devoured them all, every flaky crumb too.
Although the Casa was mobbed with what appeared to be the entire tourist demographic, if it was a tourist trap, it was one worth seeking. It’s estimated that the Casa produces over 10,000 pasteis every day and I can believe it. It definitely seems the Portuguese equivalent of the iconic Cafe du Monde in New Orleans and the famous beignets it serves.
While I saw centuries old buildings and walked streets steeped in history, the pasteis de nata are one of the fondest memories I took home with me of my trip to Portugal. Sometimes food truly is the best and longest lasting memory of a trip abroad.