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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.