The history of Pastel de Belém dates back to the early 19th century. During a time when several monasteries and convents were facing serious financial difficulties, the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery (located in Lisbon, precisely in Belém) joined forces to "save" their monastery. They invented a recipe for a sweet called "Pastéis de Belém" and started selling it to sustain the monastery. This sweet treat gained unanimous acclaim, and to preserve the recipe, the monks decided to keep it a secret. This secret has been kept until today, known only to a select few monks and pastry chefs, passed down through generations. Another unique aspect was that Pastéis de Belém were only sold in the bakery adjacent to the monastery, making them exclusive (with the secret recipe guarded and sold in a single shop).
Many bakeries tried to replicate the recipe after tasting the famous Pastéis, giving rise to the more common Pastéis de Nata. While some come close, the taste of Pastéis de Belém remains unmatched. Throughout Portugal, you can find various Pastéis de Nata, some tastier than others, some with more filling, others crispier. However, nobody has managed to replicate the authentic flavor of Pastéis de Belém. The production of Pastéis de Belém is carried out under rigorous quality control, ensuring that each pastry has the same authentic flavor that made them so famous.
The tradition of Pastéis de Belém is very much alive today. The bakery is one of the most sought-after gastronomic tourist destinations in the country, not only for tourists but also for locals who are captivated by this famous pastry. The Belém bakery, where Pastéis are sold, has a charming atmosphere, with interiors decorated in typical Portuguese azulejos (tiles). The ever-present queues are a testament to the bakery's popularity, and the pleasure of tasting a freshly baked Pastel de Nata, still warm, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, is an unforgettable experience.
What sets Pastéis de Nata apart from Pastéis de Belém? First and foremost, the name: the only genuine Pastéis de Belém are exclusively made and sold at the bakery in Belém, whereas Pastéis de Nata are produced all over the country. Then there's the flavor: some experts say that Pastéis de Belém are sweeter and creamier than common Pastéis de Nata, due to specific ingredient proportions and the use of cinnamon and lemon in their recipe.
Although Pastéis de Belém are uniquely sold in Portugal, as mentioned earlier, they have gained international recognition. Their popularity has spread far and wide, and many bakeries worldwide attempt to reproduce them. However, Pastéis de Belém are truly one-of-a-kind. They are not just another recipe for Pastéis de Nata; although often delicious, they are never quite like the real thing.
Like other products mentioned before, Pastéis de Belém are part of our country's culinary culture. They are a source of national pride, and with their secret recipe, they are unique in the world. To taste them, take a trip to Lisbon and savor a warm pastry with a view of the Tagus River. Don't forget to sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top and savor a piece of our history with every bite.
Cláudia Ferreira, who holds a degree in Communication Sciences from Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa, is currently serving as the assistant director and commercial representative at Casaiberia.