Portugal, Land of Pastries: Pastéis de Belém

IMG_0311, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

I don’t like pastries. They always seem like a waste of my appetite and my stomach space. I’d much rather eat a nice plate of pan con tomate, or some cheese and olives, or a piece of chicken, or nothing at all. Pastries just really came across as the unnecessary fluff of the food world to me, and not in a good way. That was until I stumbled upon a Portuguese bakery on my trip to Berlin last year, of all places. I was wandering around alone, a little hungry, and I decided that a little nibble of something sweet would do the trick. I had my first pastel de nata that day. And I realized that pastries could be good.

Even after I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about that custard tart. I tried, and failed, to make them at home. I sampled every variety of Chinese egg tart I could back in San Francisco, but they were all too eggy and silky and not creamy-custardy enough. When I booked my ticket to Portugal, I began to dream about them. I had the most vivid dream I’d ever had in my life, so realistic that I could smell the cinnamon dusted over the top of the pastry as I took my first wonderful bite, the light powder tickling against my nose, and I could feel the flaky dough cracking and crumbling into the custard as I nibbled away.

Needless to say, my visit to Antiga Confeitaria de Belém was a pilgrimage of sorts for me. After visiting the Os Jerónimos monastery to get into the appropriate mood, we made our way over to the famed pastry shop. The inside is cavernous; room follows room in a seemingly endless chain of stark, tiled chambers, all warmed by the bodies of dozens of hot, happy people, enjoying heaping plates of pastéis and tiny cups of coffee.

Portugal loves its pastries. Legend has it that the custardy varieties came to be as a solution to the excess of egg yolks that plagued the country’s monasteries and vineyards after the whites were all used up starching nuns’ habits and clarifying wine. That, however, does not explain the startling abundance of non-custardy pastries. There are pastries made of rice flour, of wheat flour, filled with beef and pork, or a combination of the two. Breads studded with dried fruit share bakery shelves with giant flour-powdered country loaves and tiny, colorful macarons, chicken pies smoosh up against stacks of buttery empanada-like cakes, stuffed with suckling pig (a personal favorite) and ridiculously large white cubes of meringue, topped with flaky layers of dough teeter against the window glass. These people cannot get enough of their pastries, and I must admit, seeing pasteleria after pasteleria and indulging in more than a few of them opened my eyes a bit to a wonderful world that I had previously refused to partake in.

Absolutely starved, we decided to make a lunch of it, first sampling a pile of savory pastries with a round of small Sagres beers. We tried the croquetas; subpar and too sticky, though still hard to dislike what is essentially breaded, fried meat in goo form (at least for me). Chicken pies and pastries were tasty, but nothing to rave about, though the pastéis de bacalhau were perfectly, indulgently salty and greasy and exploding with flavor; the ideal bit-size treat to enjoy (in moderation) with a Portuguese beer.

Then….the main event. After a number of feverish attempts to flag down our gruff and rustled waiter, garotos (the Lisbon-specific term for shots of espresso topped with milk) were ordered, as well as a modest mound of the most famous of Portuguese treats. And they were good.

Freshly baked, warm, and almost runny compared to custard that has been allowed to cool, the pastry filling was an over-the-top treat, and the pastry itself was perfectly crisp and flaky. After several samples from other Lisbon outlets, none as fresh or as warm as the ones we tried in Belém, I must say that these were the best I had. It seems essential to have them straight out of the oven, and in Belém you could literally watch them making hundreds of these little gems at a time.

I don’t know if pastries will be a part of my life now that I am back from vacation. Maybe because eating custard every day probably isn’t the best path towards a healthy lifestyle, or maybe because indulgent breakfasts aren’t as fun when eaten in your cubicle. Or maybe because I just haven’t found a Portuguese bakery yet.

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