The Marquesa lifted a forkful of sweet custard tart to her lips.
She let it slide slowly over her tongue, then swallowed delicately. Her eyelids lowered to half mast. “Pasteis de nata?” she said dreamily. “You can get them everywhere. But for the best, you have to go to Belem.”
The Portuguese definitely have a sweet tooth. In Lisbon it seems as if there’s a pastelaria or pastry shop on every block, sometimes two or three. All are full of sugary treats, but the custardy, egg yolk-based pastries created by nuns during the 17th century make the Portuguese heart beat a little faster. Some have delightfully celestial names such as papos de anjo (angel’s breasts) and toucinho do ceu (bacon from heaven)—the last also made in Spain where it’s known as tocino de cielo.
But of all the egg yolk pastries, Lisboans go completely weak at the knees for silver dollar-sized pasteis de nata (literally “cakes of cream”) that can be devoured in two or three bites. And of all the pasteis sold around the world, they are hands down most passionate about the ones from the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem.
Which is why Serendipity and I are now standing in a line with about 500 people on a hot Saturday afternoon, waiting to enter its hallowed doors.
The Antiga Confeitaria is just a block from the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, itself an architectural piece of patisserie, encrusted as it is with saints, nautical motifs and sculptural curlicues. The monastery was built early in the16th century to honor Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India, a feat which led to Portugal’s early control of the spice trade. (In the various chapels of the Mosteiro, you can see royal caskets upheld by Indian elephants with gleaming tusks.)
As the story goes, the delectable pasteis were originally baked and sold at the Mosteiro, but after the Liberal Revolution led to the disbanding of all religious orders in 1834, “someone” began to sell them at a general store attached to a nearby sugar mill. By 1837, the store’s owner, Domingo Rafael Alves, was in possession of the recipe and the baking had moved to his enterprise. Today, one of Alves’ descendants owns the Confeitaria, where an estimated 12,000 pasteis are baked and sold daily.
The secret of their deliciousness is said to be known only to three people—and they’re not talking.
But wait. This is the line for take out and we want to sit down. We shoulder our way inside and follow a flood of people who clearly know where they are going, threading our way through one dining room after another. Every chair at every table is filled, but at last we reach the end of the line: a huge tiled room where there is…another slow-moving line.
I won’t dwell on the way that an obnoxious pregnant woman and her pals jumped the queue, triumphantly commandeering an empty table as the rest of us watched like open-mouthed sheep, or how we were finally shunted to a table in no-man’s land, or how it took 42 minutes and the intervention of a sympathetic waitress for the maitre d’ to bark at our server who’d been too busy chatting up a table of locals to take a piddling order for two.
But at last a plate of six pasteis de natas, fresh from the Confeitaria’s fiery ovens, is plopped down on our table, along with two tall glass cups of milky coffee. We sprinkle the pasteis with cinnamon and powdered sugar, and….
The fragile, thin-layered pastry, a little burned on the bottom, crackles delicately as I bite into it. Then the velvety egg custard, blistered until it’s caramelized on top, oozes over my tongue. Sweet, creamy and tasting of vanilla, it’s rich–but not outrageously so. The pasteis disappear in minutes, each one an irresistible combination of voluptuous filling and buttery, brittle shell.
According to the Marques, almost any idiot can make the custard. “Years ago there was a Chinese bakery in Macao that started making pasteis and people went crazy,” he recalls. “They came from everywhere and bought boxes and boxes to take home.” He smiled knowingly. “But the real secret is the crust, and no one has ever been able to copy it.”
Cleverer cooks than I have tried to pry the secrets of the pasteis from the Confeitaria’s tight-lipped pastry chefs. If you’d like to read about David Leite’s adventures there—and see a recipe—check out these two posts at his blog, Leite’s Culinaria: Pasteis de Belem: On the Trail of a Portuguese Legend and Portuguese Custard Tarts.
Oh, and just for the record, Serendipity and I felt obligated to sample other pasteis around Lisbon. Just to be sure. And they were good almost everywhere we went.
But the ones at the Antiga Confeitaria? Now those were sublime.