Pastel de Belem, the famous coffee-time treat
Pastel de Belem, the emblematic Portuguese coffee-time treat, is also known as the custard tart in English. Mind you, it is not the same as a British custard tart – it has actually nothing to do with it. You will be able to find this pastry – ranked 15th tastiest sweet in the world by the Guardian – in any Portuguese café worthy of its name, although the recipe will be slightly different. The only place selling real Pastéis de Belem is the traditional factory in Belem, Lisbon. All other similar recipes need to go by the name of pastel de nata. The recipe is a well-kept secret; the only people who know it are the pastry chefs who work in the Oficina do Segredo, meaning the office of the secret. When first hired, they take an oath and sign a responsibility contract where they swear never to disclose the recipe.
Monks from the Hieronymites Monastery from the order of St Jerome, in Belem, first started selling pastéis de Belem to bring additional income to the convent. When the convent closed in 1834 after the 1920 liberal revolution which forced all convents to shut down and expelled the clergy, the convent’s cook sold the recipe to a Portuguese impresario, who bought a sugar refinery in the area and started selling large quantities of pastéis. His family remains in possession of the recipe to this day, and both the name and recipe are patented. The factory has now expanded since the 19th century and comprises a large café where warm pastéis continuously pour out of the kitchen. Curious tourists as well as locals fill the area, especially around holiday season.
Pastéis can be found throughout what used to be the Portuguese empire, especially in Brazil. Through the Portuguese colony of Macau, the pastel de nata arrived in China and is called dan ta, meaning egg pastry. It later spread to neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.
A pastel de nata is made of puff pastry, large quantities of egg yolks, milk, sugar, and cinnamon. It is traditionally eaten warm and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.