Sunday, April 1, 2012

Creamy Custard Tarts in Lisbon

The Tagus River meets the sea at Lisbon, and it was from the city’s historic riverside district,
Belém, that Portuguese explorers set sail, their discoveries creating an empire for Portugal.
The most famous of all, Vasco da Gama, set his course for India here, and his fame is perhaps matched by a pastry first produced in Belém in 1837, and now the country’s favorite treat.

Belém is an essential visit on any trip to Lisbon; its great monuments and buildings still shimmer with the wealth and glory of Portugal’s Golden Age in the 16th century. Riches poured into the country through the discoveries of bold Portuguese explorers, who can be seen commemorated in the famous Monument to the Discoveries. The period gave birth to a magnificent architectural style known as Manueline (after the king, Dom Manuel I), and two defining examples are the highlights of any visit to Belém – the Torre de Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the stupendously decorated monastery that graces the riverside here. Elaborate sculpted detail virtually drips from its columns, vaults, and window frames, with naturalistic and maritime
motifs to the fore, from twisted ropes and seashells to entwined leaves and branches.

The monastery, museums, cultural center, royal palace, and botanic gardens at Belém add up to a great
day out from the Portuguese capital. But for many visitors, the first stop is a pastry shop, to sample a
small pastel de nata served warm from the oven, its flaky pastry slightly crunchy to the bite, the creamy
custard blistered by the heat. Three or four bites and it’s gone, but it’s a fleeting taste that will conjure fond
memories of Portugal long after you’ve returned home.

The Portuguese take on the custard tart is actually one of its more restrained confections – other pastry and pudding recipes commonly use a dozen eggs, mounds of sugar, and lots of cream, but the pastel de nata is simple and rather elegant, calling for nothing more than well-made puff pastry and a modest, if rich, cream-custard filling. Like many traditional Portuguese tarts and desserts, it owes its origins to an unsung pastry chef in a religious order, in this case from Belém’s Jerónimos monastery. Selling pastries to supplement church income was once a common sideline, and since 1837 the custard tarts have been inextricably linked with one particular pastry shop and café near the monastery, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, which remains in business today. This is why in Lisbon the tart is known as a pastel de Belém – but everywhere else in the country, you need only ask for a pastel de nata, or even simply a nata, to sample this sweet favorite.

What Else to Eat

Fish and shellfish are Lisbon specialties, and there’s an entire central street – Rua das Portas de Santo Antão – devoted to seafood restaurants. The painted Portuguese tiles known as azulejos are another typical feature of the city, and the two come together in Lisbon’s traditional cervejarias, or beer halls, which are often elaborately tiled and serve great seafood. Cervejaria Trindade (
is the oldest in the city and magnificently decorated with Masonic imagery. Lisbon is also home to populations of immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Goa, and they have endowed the city with some great ethnic eateries – try Comida de Santo ( for spicy Brazilian dishes and punchy cocktails.

A Day in Belém

Central Lisbon spreads across various distinct neighborhoods, from the medieval castle area to the 18th-century center known as the Baixa. Belém is a small district lying around 4 miles (7 km) from downtown Lisbon, and its historic sights and monuments make a visit here a must.


 If you’re staying in Lisbon, take the tram along the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) to Belém (around 20 minutes), getting off near the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Explore the grandiose monastery and its exquisite cloister before strolling along the landscaped riverfront, past the striking Monument to the Discoveries to the fanciful Torre de Belém (Belém Tower).


Visit the engaging Museu dos Coches (carriage museum), then walk through the leafy pathways of the Jardins do Ultramar to reach the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda, an opulent 19th-century royal residence.


For drinks with a river view, and to sample something from a rich cultural program spanning jazz to opera, visit the striking Centro Cultural de Belém (Belém Cultural Center), situated opposite the monastery.



Fly to Lisbon’s international airport, Aeroporto de Lisboa, then take the bus, train, or a taxi downtown. The tram to Belém departs from Praça do Comércio in Lisbon’s Baixa neighborhood.


Oasis (inexpensive) is a stylish downtown backpackers’ hostel.
As Janelas Verdes (moderate) has lovely rooms in an intimate 18th-century town house.

Solar dos Mouros (expensive) is a boutique hotel five minutes from the center of the city with wonderful views.


Rua do Arsenal 15, Lisbon;

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém

Despite the charms of the riverside in Belém, it’s hard not to make a beeline for the Antiga
Confeitaria, the “old pastry shop,” but you can reassure yourself that it’s just as much a cultural
highlight as the nearby monastery and other attractions. The busy, traffic-choked street
outside gives way to a typically Portuguese tiled and polished interior, the vaulted rooms lined with antique azulejo tiles. There’s a bustling carry-out counter and café tables inside, and while a score of different cakes and pastries vie for attention, there’s only one real choice for aficionados – a pastel de Belém (ask for pasteis de Belém if you want several), made to the same recipe since the shop first opened in
1837. They’re sprinkled with ground cinnamon in the traditional manner (not all cafés serve
them this way), and while most Portuguese people would take one with an espresso coffee
(known here as a bica), it’s also perfectly in order to have a pot of tea.

Rua de Belém 84–92, Belém, Lisbon; open
Jun–Sep: 8 AM–midnight daily; Oct–May: 8 AM–11 PM daily;

Also in Lisbon

To enjoy a custard tart with a view, try the elegant if slightly touristy cafés on central
Lisbon’s main square, the Rossio, or the stately Confeitaria Nacional (www.; moderate) on the adjacent Praça da Figueira. Other famous cafés
in the capital, each with tantalizing cakes and pastries, include Martinho da Arcada (+351
218 879 259; moderate), an old literary haunt under the arches on Praça do Comércio, and
the uptown and very ornate Café Versailles (+351 213 546 340; moderate).

Also in Portugal

There are traditional cafés in every town and city that serve an excellent pastel de nata. In Porto, try the beautifully decorated Café  Majestic (+351 22 200 3887; moderate). In the medieval university city of Coimbra, the Café Santa Cruz ( ; inexpensive) serves delicious pasteis de nata in the vaulted rooms of a former monastery.

Around the World

In any city with a large Portuguese population, from London to Luanda, you’re sure to find a pastel de nata. It’s a different matter just across the border in Spain, however, which has its own, very different, pastry-making heritage. But in Barcelona’s excellent A Casa Portuguesa (; moderate), a deli/café in the hip suburb of Gràcia, they serve a pastel de nata every bit as good as those made in Portugal.

No comments:

Post a Comment