Slightly crispy on the outside with a semi-sweet creamy inside, it’s no wonder pastéis de nata are Lisbon’s favorite pastries. Although cafés across the city boast their natas as the best, a truly unique experience will be found at Pastéis de Belém. What makes theirs so different? This lovely shop sells the original recipe, a secret that has only been shared with a very small, close-knit group of people. Located next door to the Jerónimos Monastery where the first tarts were baked, the combination café-bakery-shop is undoubtedly the most famous in Lisbon, as indicated by the long lines trailing out its door regardless of the season or day of the week. We interviewed the café’s manager, Miguel Clarinha, for an exclusive inside scoop.
One of the mysteries surrounding the famous Pastéis de Belém tarts concerns the age of the recipe; developed by monks who lived in the Jerónimos Monastery centuries ago, it may be 200 or more years old. One thing, however, is certain—the recipe is one of Lisbon’s best-kept secrets and despite other cafés coming rather close, they can still only dream about recreating the original sweet classic. There are many variations of pastéis de nata but only one Pastéis de Belém.
Where did your secret recipe originate from and how old is it?
[The recipe] originated in the Monastery beside us (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) and it is at least 180 years old, probably over 200.
Has the recipe been adapted over time or do you still use the original?
It remains unchanged…original.
Looking at these tarts, it’s easy to appreciate the work that goes into the baking process. From the flaky crust to the richly thick creamy inside and the golden top, pastéis require more steps than your typical pour-and-bake recipe.
How long does it take to make the perfect pastel?
The pastry and custard take about two to three hours and then they need to rest for a few more. The other steps of production, cutting and molding the dough, filling with the custard, and the ovens take about 40 minutes.
Do you have a top tip?
[The] recipe is secret. All we can say is that this is the only place in the world where Pastéis de Belém are made and sold.
Perhaps the world will never discover the secret, and that’s okay. Droves of tourists and locals still enjoy these pastries while visiting Belém. New visitors shouldn’t be disheartened by the lines outside the café’s door, as the to-go counter moves fairly quickly and the lines flow easily. Waiting for a table in the café, however, may be another story, especially during July and August when vacation season is at its peak. For the full Pastéis de Belém experience without the crowds, visit during a weekday in the winter.
How many pastéis do you make and sell per day?
We make and sell about 20,000 pastéis per day.
Do you sell your pastéis to any other cafés or retailers?
What constitutes the perfect pastel?
Crunchy and slightly salty dough with a soft and not too sweet custard.
Portugal has no shortage of cafés specializing in pastéis de nata in addition to other sweets, but travelers shouldn’t pass by Belém without sinking their teeth into the original recipe. Be sure to sprinkle cinnamon and a little powdered sugar on top of your treat before digging in.
Here are some more photos of the pastéis creation process and the delicious final product:
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