One thing I was told by everyone I met in or talked about Portugal with was to try the legendary Pastel De Belem.
Portugal’s pastries are world-renowned and can easily challenge any of the finest in Europe.
Within the first 48 hours I had tried one of Portugal’s Pastel de Nata, which is in essence an egg custard tart, the pastry flakey, the custard velvety if a little sweet, it was pretty good.
But as I would find out this didn’t hold a candle to the Pastel de Belem.
Pastel de Belem is a pastry so good it’s recipe is a closely guarded secret known only to one person, the recipe itself, written in code, held under lock and key. I found this out motivated by genuine curiosity as to what would happen if the recipient keeper died.
So, after a short trip by train to Belem where by chance I met a fellow countryman from Rotorua, (to be covered in an upcoming article) it was a foregone conclusion the pastry namesake must be tried at all costs. (A couple € for a Pastel de Belem and a coffee as it turned out.)
What I at first thought was a tiny coffee shop was full of labyrinthine cafe tea rooms leading to the windowed view into the kitchens themselves. Chefs toiled like Wonka’s umpalumpa’s beyond the glass.
The tables were heavily trafficked, I grabbed a table and ordered a Galaou escuro (the only coffee I feel confident in pronouncing) and a Pastel de Belem. They arrived promptly, now the moment of truth, I was heavily skeptical it could be that good.
I took a bite. The pastry was unlike the others I had around the city, it was crisp, almost candied. I took another bite. The custard, still warm from the ovens melted in my mouth, not too sweet not too bland, just right. I took a third bite. By now I felt a warmth traveling from my mouth into my stomach radiating outwards like I had just drunk a very smooth scotch and I broke into a crazed grin at how good it was. The final bite. I started to panic somewhat over the effect it was having on me. If I had been operating heavy machinery I would be in a blissed out fireball right now.
It was very much like eating some magical fabled treat from Willy Wonka or any one of Roald Dahl’s many food based enchanters, the cake shop from the grand Budapest hotel perhaps, or gnawing on the balustrade of some crazy cannibal lady’s gingerbread house.
Despite my initial skepticism it was true, this was the best Pastel De Nata in Lisbon if not the best custard tart in the world.
I decided I didn’t want to dilute the experience by ordering a never-ending stream of them to my table, so as wonderful as it was, it was time to move on.
I went to pay then leave, immediately two people started arguing over who had the next seat at the table. Neither backing down they both forcibly took a seat staking their claim on the table while continuing to argue heatedly.
Dreamily still in the afterglow of the Pastel de Belem, I thought “Did that really just happen? Oh wow, I’m getting out of here before I get killed in a turf war over the best pastry in Portugal.”