Falling in love with Lisbon’s pastelarias

by Sarah on April 3, 2011

lisbon, portugal

I arrived in Lisbon into a traveler’s limbo, too early for check-in and too hungry and tired to be a proper tourist. With three hours to idle away I ventured outside to find a pastelaria, remembering advice from my friends “”Don’t forget to try the Pastel de Nata!”. These bakeries/cake shops are tucked in almost every neighborhood, sometimes several on the same block, serving breads, sandwiches, pastries and the Portuguese quintessential egg custard tarts.

With no particular destination, I wandered Lisbon’s narrow streets, learning to jaywalk like the locals and sidestepping speeding taxis. Away from the pedestrian corridor, laundry decorates the buildings like flags, revealing a more personal side of the city.

lisbon laundry

The elegant façade and ceiling to floor windows display a fading affluence, one that has merged with the pervasive graffiti and grit of daily life.

lisbon graffiti

It lacks the rigorous upkeep of popular tourist destinations and neither does it have the resort holiday “vibe”. Yet under the urban art, cracks and peeling paint, the architectural beauty has not diminished and one that tells the rich history of the Portuguese.

I passed darkened grocery stores and small family restaurants before finding a window filled with every pastry imaginable, including one I recognized as Pastel de Nata. After mind numbing airport delays, sprinting to catch badly timed connecting flights, security checks that had me scrambling to get my shoes and belt back on, I would do it all again to taste Portugal’s legendary pastry. My first bite was a revelation; a full bodied, velvety cream encased in a flaky caramelized pastry crust. This unassuming treat seemed way too luxurious to be eaten for a midweek breakfast, yet it is served at almost every side street bakery.

pastel de nata

Thankfully I planned this trip with Boston food blogger, Zahavah who didn’t need to be convinced of the priorities. We made just a cursory visit to the important monuments and skipped the museums all together.

pasteis belem, pastel de nata

Pasteis de Belem

Instead we found ourselves touring the city’s pastelarias, culminating at Pastéis de Belém, the most famous in the country. The original egg custard tarts were first made here almost two hundred years ago by the nuns of Jeronimos Monastery. As a result of the liberal revolution of 1820 the monastery was forced to close and the clergy began baking these pastries for economic survival. The tradition continued in 1837, when they opened a bakery in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon using a secret recipe passed on from the monastery. Eventually the pastries as well as the shop became known as Pastéis de Belém and their popularity quickly spread to other areas of Portugal.  Outside the Belem Bakery the pastry is known as pastel de nata (plural, pasteis de nata).

pasteis de belem , lisbon portugal

There really should be legal limit to the number of these pastries that can be eaten as they are truly addicting.”It’s disgusting how good these are”, Zahavah observed as the shop filled with a constant stream of customers. Other writers have described it as “deadly” and I see that only as a complement. It is all too easy to eat yourself into a stupor or worse, a pastry coma.

We stumbled out of the shop much later, taking an electric trolley back to the center. Which pastry did I like the best? There is a reason why Pastéis de Belém has become a pilgrimage for those seeking the pinnacle of traditional Portuguese pastries.

portugal , lisbon

portugal, lisbon

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Yael April 3, 2011 at 8:30 am

Beautiful post (as usual). Missed you terribly, next time I’m coming with you.

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Miriam/The Winter Guest April 3, 2011 at 10:18 am

The pastéis de Belém are simply amazing… I was in Lisbon some 20 years ago and I still remember them…

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Sarah April 3, 2011 at 10:36 am

Miriam, I wish I could have taken a few with me! Guess I will have to go back to Lisbon.

Yael, Next time you are for sure coming with me and I promise I wont order squid ink risotto.

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Faye Levy April 4, 2011 at 2:17 am

The funny thing is, those tarts became famous in the Far East and a version of them is popular in many Chinese bakeries

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Sarah April 4, 2011 at 2:38 am

you’re right, especially in places like Macau where there was Portuguese influence

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barbara April 4, 2011 at 2:51 am

Gorgeous post. The two things I experienced in Portugal were sardines and pulpo. Both fantastic.

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Sarah April 4, 2011 at 3:05 am

Thanks, I didn’t have any pulpo this time but I sure ate alot of cod.

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Zahavah April 4, 2011 at 5:56 am

Your pictures and writing recreate our trip so well. Makes me want to go back for some more pastries (but no more cod). The pressure is on for me to write my salmorejo post. Great traveling with you and looking forward to our next adventure!

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sea cucumber April 4, 2011 at 10:26 pm

I want to eat one…. did you come home with a recipe?

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Sarah April 4, 2011 at 10:35 pm

There are recipes on the internet but the Pasteis de Belem is a secret and hidden under lock and key. That’s why I will have to go back.

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Turkey's For Life April 7, 2011 at 2:09 am

Never been to Lisbon and neither of us particularly for sweet things – but they look soooo good. Great post and I love your photos of Lisbon – especially the one of the washing! :)
Julia

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Sarah April 7, 2011 at 2:14 am

Even if you don’t love sweets, you must come to Lisbon for the cod.

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A Bowl Of Mush April 7, 2011 at 9:39 am

Love Lisbon! Look at those pastries yum! Clearly I need to go there again.

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Sarah April 7, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Bowl of Mush, Hope you make it back to Lisbon soon.

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azahar April 8, 2011 at 2:05 am

OMG that close-up of the pastries is almost painful to look at…

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heidileon April 8, 2011 at 11:37 pm

we’re secretly dreaming a visit to Lisbon and definitely pasteis de Belem are priority Number 1. Seriously jealous.

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Sarah April 9, 2011 at 12:07 am

Don’t worry, they have been selling pasteis de Belem for more than 100 years. They will wait for you.

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aisya ibrahim May 19, 2014 at 10:47 am

Beautiful post! Cant wait to travel to Lisbon, when school break comes. I just went back home from London. I went there just to eat, maybe you should try lamb ribs served in London. They are addictive too.

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