On the streets winding up, down and around the seven hills that comprise Lisbon, and in town plazas throughout the country, the pastelaria or confeitaria (pastry shop) is a mainstay of the Portuguese neighbourhood.
Pastelarias in Portugal stay busy throughout the
day as customers pop in to purchase boxes of pastries, or pause for a bit to
savour baked morsels and coffee. Rows of flaky, palm-sized pastries fill window
displays in stacked pans. The golden-brown confections complement the colour
scheme of typical Portuguese architecture: from the burnt orange roofs to the clean
white buildings to decorative hues that resemble the colour of butter.
using elaborate toppings or mouldings, the Portuguese keep their baked goods
simple. Each type of pastry varies only slightly from the next, and they often
come topped or filled with a sweet, gooey custard. The fundamental ingredient is
the egg yolk, which is used in as many ways as possible.
archetypal Portuguese pastry is the pastel de nata, a custard tart with hints of lemon, cinnamon
and vanilla, often sprinkled with powdered sugar and easily consumed in a few
bites. It resembles a tiny pie, and the baked, creamy egg custard is cupped in
the centre. Throughout the country, the pastel de nata is so adored that discussions about
which shop makes the best often become enlivened debates.
believe that this sacred Portuguese pastry is found in its most heavenly form
at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem
(commonly known as the Pastéis de Belém), located west of downtown Lisbon. It
is believed that the first-ever version of this dessert was baked in the same spot
more than 200 years ago by nuns at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which adjoins the pastry shop. Nuns
are credited with creating many of the country’s pastries, and some say the egg
yolk became a central ingredient in Portuguese baking because the nuns used so many egg whites to starch their attire.
Belém has been in operation since 1837, and the same, closely guarded recipe has been followed since that very first year. A few “master
confectioners” are the only ones who know the art, and they concoct batches of
the confection within the confines of a “secret” room in the shop. It is the
most-frequented pastry shop in the whole of Portugal, but it is not just tourists
who bring the volume of traffic. Locals also know it as the best spot for their
most beloved pastries.
Those on a
tight schedule order their pastries to take away from the dapper, bow-tied
staff behind the counter. Others eat at a table in one of the cafe’s multiple
seating areas, adorned with painted blue and white tiles, just steps from the Belem Tower
-- a monument from which numerous Portuguese expeditions have set sail.
Versailles (Avenida da Republica 15 A, 351-21-354-63-40) is a young cafe in comparison,
dating back to 1932, but many claim Versailles’ pastel de nata rivals the
recipe found at Pastéis de Belém. The sign outside, written in a fanciful script,
foretells the baroque-style interior,
marked with rich woods, ornate mirrors and staffed with smartly dressed
waiters. The cafe is a National Heritage site and is one of
the most famous cafes in the country, though its location slightly north of the city
discourages tourists from making it for a breakfast or teatime pastry. Other favourites
on offer include croissants stuffed with custard or pudim flã (a
Pre-dating the Pastéis de Belém, Confeitaria
Nacional opened in the capital city in 1829 and once served as the
Portuguese monarchy’s official bakery, supplying the family with their daily
choice of sweets. The traditional Bolo
Rei fruitcake is a house specialty and a must for Portuguese Christmas
tables. Though the Bolo Rei is
originally a French recipe, the Confeitaria was the first to introduce it to
Portugal and the bakery has adopted the dessert as their own. The bakery also sets out
favourites such as queijadas de Sintra,
a pastry that originated in Sintra, a town 30 minutes northwest of Lisbon, and features a sweet, light cheese in addition
to many of the same ingredients as the pastel de nata. Like many pastry shops in
Portugal, it is family-owned.