Location: Belem, Portugal
Every single minute spent in the queue for this pastry was absolutely worth it.
After all we had risked our lives for this. As we were standing in the queue at Baixa (central Lisbon) waiting to buy our tram tickets we overheard someone say that nobody ever buys a ticket for the tram because they rarely ever have conductors on them anyway. So we decided – when in Rome…
Ten minutes into our tram ride – I could hear a faint click! click! click! that seemed to be drawing nearer. Suddenly everyone in our cable car started getting fidgety. I peeked to find out what was happening – it was the conductor walking around confirming passengers’ tickets. The funniest moment was when the tram stopped and everyone ran out…literally! It was absolutely hilarious because my friends and I thought we were the only ones who had hitched a free ride. Luckily for us, we were not too far from our final stop so we walked the rest of the way to the Belem district.
Now all that was left to do was to queue and wait for our turn to try out the delicious and famous Pasteis de Belem. Here’s a brief history of this famous puff pastry.
History of Pastéis de Belém
At the beginning of the 19th Century, in Belém, next to Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Heironymite Monastery) there was a sugar cane refinery attached to a small general store. As a result of the 1820 liberal revolution, all convents and monasteries in Portugal were shut down in 1834, the clergy and labourers expelled.
In an attempt at survival, someone from the monastery offered sweet pastries for sale in the shop; pastries that rapidly became known as ‘Pastéis de Belém’.
At that period the area of Belém was considered far from the city of Lisbon and mainly accessed by steam-boats. At the same time, the grandeur of the monastery and the Torre de Belém (the Belém Tower) attracted visitors who soon grew used to savouring the delicious pastries originated in the monastery.
In 1837, the baking of the “Pastéis de Belém” began in the buildings attached to the refinery, following the ancient secret recipe from the monastery. Passed on and known exclusively to the master confectioners who hand-crafted the pastries in the secret room, this recipe remains unchanged to the present day.
In fact, the only true ‘Pasteis de Belém’ contrive, by means of a scrupulous selection of ingredients, to offer even today the flavor of the time-honored Portuguese sweet-making.
Belem still honors its sweet and virtuous history. The puff pastry is made by hand by three main pastry chefs who upon initiation must take a secret oath (i.e. sign a contract) in order to safeguard its almost 200-year-old recipe.
An old Portuguese proverb says that “A bride who eats a pastry will never take off her ring” and so it is fairly common to see newlywed couples, dressed as bride and groom, at Lisbon’s most famous Portuguese bakery. Portugal is a country of traditions and, on a wedding day, these are definitely not overlooked. Following the reception, the bride and groom come to the bakery to indulge in a sweet Belém Pastry.
The most scenic tram route is the E28 which crosses the Alfama district and is a great way to experience the quaint yellow Remodelado trams that rattle and screech through the narrow streets of Lisboa. Make sure you hop on it if you’re ever in Lisbon.