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It was something almost unheard of: there was no line. We could have walked right into Pastéis de Belém, ostensibly the most famous pastry shop in Portugal – if not in the world – an exceedingly rare occurrence since Portugal’s tourism boom. But we had already wrangled a way in; we had an appointment with Miguel Clarinha, the fourth-generation owner of the iconic Lisbon bakery, who had agreed to give us a behind-the-scenes tour.

Pastéis de Belém claims to be the inventor of the egg tart, known generally in Portugal as pastel de nata, “cream pastry,” but here as pastel de Belém. The story goes that the sweets – pastry cups filled with an egg and cream custard – have their origins in the Jerónimos Monastery, steps away from the bakery’s current location in Belém, just west of Lisbon. When Portugal’s monasteries were closed in 1820, a former monk simply shifted a few doors down to a sugar refinery to continue to produce the sweet, and in 1837, the pastel de Belém was born.

We meet Clarinha, don a plastic lab jacket and hair net, and he takes us to the room where the pastry shell is shaped.

“The pastry has to be flaky and a bit salty,” explains Clarinha, as we watch a woman manipulate a massive, smooth mound of laminated pastry, stretching it into a narrow tube then chopping that tube into sections without the use of a scale (“I go by experience,” she tells us). These are then positioned upright in small metal molds, the pastry fingers not unlike tiny logs – the layers of pastry the growth rings – before being pressed and smeared by hand to ensure maximum layers in the final product.

“There’s no machine that can do this job as well as a person can,” says Clarinha of this particular step, which is still done exclusively by hand, explaining that even variations in temperature throughout the year can influence the quality of the laminated dough.

We continue deeper in the bakery and Clarinha points out the famous “Secret Office,” where the ingredients and proportions for the filling and crust are measured. He tells me that only seven people know the entire recipe of pastéis de Belém: he, his father and cousin, and four cooks. This tiny team oversees the production of 20,000 pastéis de Belém every day.

Our next stop is a room where the custard filling, ostensibly a combination of eggs, cream and sugar, is allowed to cool in massive stainless steel buckets.

“The custard needs to be smooth, not too sweet,” Clarinha tells us, as we take in the sweet, milky aroma.

From here, the custard is pumped through a machine and injected into the pastry cups. Vast trays of the tarts are then shifted to another room, where they’re baked in electric ovens at 400 C for 20 minutes until the shell is crispy and flaky and the top of the custard gets its tell-tale char. At this point, the tarts are done, and they are removed from their metal molds to be sold from this location only.

“In our experience, [a good egg tart] should be fresh,” Clarinha tells us. “First and foremost, it should be warm, baked that same day.”

We’re in the bakery’s expansive dining room – it can accommodate 250 people – where Clarinha tells us about the company’s background.

“We’ve been family-owned for four generations, since the beginning of the 20th century,” he says. “We’ve had offers to sell or expand, but we’ve decided not to do this. We have a special connection [with the product], and don’t want to change the quality and identity.” He pauses a second before adding, “Never a franchise – or freezing!”

He orders tarts for us, and taking a bite, we remark upon the uniquely thick, savory/salty crust that flakes off in long shards.

“It’s a sweet that involves your senses: you can feel it, you can hear it, it needs to be crunchy,” Clarinha reminds us.

This shell provides a stark contrast with the tart’s relatively light, almost curd-like filling. It boasts a texture not unlike that of natural yogurt – it’s hard to tell where the cream starts and the eggs begin – and a flavor that is mercifully unsweet, unlike most other versions in town, whose custard fillings often have the dense, concentrated texture and sweetness of dulce de leche or even sweetened condensed milk.

We ask Clarinha if the tarts have changed in their nearly 200-year history, and he tells us, “The recipe here has not changed at all. But our ingredients – flour, eggs, sugar – have changed over the years. Maybe 100 years ago, these ingredients were different, we don’t know.”

Each table is topped with a shaker filled with powdered cinnamon – also available from the bakery in charming, branded to-go packets – an optional garnish that serves as a reminder of Portugal’s expansion and colonialism that led to this sweet.

“The Monastery of Jerónimos was also a point where people dropped off products from abroad – sugar from Brazil, cinnamon from Asia,” explains Clarinha, reminding us that Belém was once an important port, a destination for new and exotic ingredients and influences from east and west.

We thank Clarinha, and upon exiting, we see a man crunching a pastel de Belém in the winter sunshine. We ask him where he’s from.

“I’m local, and I’m crazy about egg tarts,” explains the man, who goes by Henrique. “I was just passing by, I saw no queue, so I stopped in. They’re amazing.”

If you don’t believe us, or Miguel Clarinha for that matter, take it from a local: Pastéis de Belém is one of those tourist icons that actually delivers.

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Published on March 16, 2023

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