Lisbon is shabbier than Barcelona, but the Portuguese capital has several resplendent delights. One of them, if you are into history, is the Padrao dos Descobrimentos. The 170-foot memorial, along the banks of the Tagus River, is shaped like the prow of a caravel and celebrates the feats of Portuguese maritime explorers who helped the country build the worldâs first ever global empire.
The location of the monument, in Belem, not too far from downtown Lisbon, is significant because it is here that those long, epochal journeys began and ended. Set in stone are navigators â along with kings, poets, mathematicians and cartographers â who quite literally, for better or worse, changed the world: Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Henry the Navigator, and Bartolomeu Dias stand tall, gazing across the river.
I carried back several other memories of Lisbon: of wandering around Alfama, the cityâs oldest district and a maze of medieval alleys; listening to fado, the countryâs plaintively beautiful folk music; of gazing at the city from Castelo de Sao Jorge, and sampling some culinary deception in the form of the alheira, a sausage made of chicken and bread crumbs instead of pork, and created by Jews to escape suspicion during the Catholic Inquisition. But I never thought that the flaky custard tart â the pastel de nata â I had in Portugal would one day go global and dominate Instagram timelines. In a recent article, Bloomberg has called it a global brand, and âan unlikely dessert (that) is on its way to becoming as ubiquitous as the croissantâ. And that is not hyperbole. The Portuguese egg custard tart has found favour in places as far afield as Oslo and Singapore, and is also available in Mumbai at the O Pedro restaurant in the Bandra Kurla Complex. For the real deal, though, and to savour the story behind it, one has to head to the Pasteis de Belem.
Pasteis de Belem.
The cafe and bakery, among Lisbonâs oldest, was set up in 1837, and, while it makes several other treats, it owes its popularity to the original custard tart. The success of the cafe, a cavernous, bright space redolent of tantalising aromas, is inextricably linked to the imposing, over 500-year-old Jeronomite (or Hieronymite) Monastery in Belem. According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, âthe pastel de nata originated sometime prior to the seventeenth century in the Santa Maria de Belem (the Jeronomite Monastery) quarter of Lisbon. Pastry production provided religious orders with supplemental income, and the monks of the Monastery of the Hieronymites first created these tarts to help offset monastery expenses. The tarts were made from yolks left over from eggs whose whites were used to starch clothing and purify wine.â
The Liberal Revolution of 1820, which saw the closure of several convents and monasteries in Portugal, though, upended life for the monks at the Jeronomite Monastery. The monks, strapped for cash, offered the pastries they made for sale at a general store close to the monastery, and in 1834, when the monastery closed down due to lack of funds, they sold the recipe to Domingo Rafael Alves, the shrewd owner of the general store who also ran a local sugar refinery. Three years later, Alves shuttered his store and started exclusively making the pasteis de nata. The same, closely guarded recipe is used to make the custard tart today, and the name â pasteis de Belem â was registered in 1911 to differentiate it from pretenders.
Pasteis de Belem reportedly sells over 20,000 pasteis de nata daily, and most of its patrons, including, of course, hordes of tourists, troop into the cafe to exclusively pick up or sit at one of the tables and savour the tarts. Service at the blue-and-white tiled cafe is quick. My order arrived in less than a minute. The tarts, dusted with cinnamon, are served warm, and, within seconds I discover, they are also richly creamy and flaky. But the best thing, if you ask me, was that they were not overly sweet. I polished off three tarts in no time, and, after taking a sip of my black coffee, ordered a second round.
The writer works on content strategy at Haymarket SAC. Read Murali K. Menon's columns