In this world of information sharing, an old patisserie in Lisbon has managed to hold on to the secret recipe of Portugal’s finest pastry for over 100 years. Only a handful of people have ever known how to bake a real “pastel de Belém”, despite the countless imitations found everywhere under the name “pastel de nata”.
The pastel de Belém (in the plural: pastéis de Belém) has become acclaimed as the king of Portuguese pastries. Appreciated all around the world, its often-copied-yet-never-bettered recipe is a zealously kept secret and its confection only takes place in this old patisserie in Belém. Read on to understand why.
Some 20 years ago there was a serious threat to the survival of this old secret. Two of the patisserie’s pastry chefs, who knew the secret recipe, were getting on in their years. One of them, Luís Morgado, had reached the age of 65 and wanted to retire, so it was necessary to find an adequate replacement. This was no easy task, and the owners started scrutinising the rest of the employees in search of the perfect substitute. Luís Morgado warned them it was imperative for the person to be tall, to neither drink alcohol nor smoke, and also be trustworthy.
Vítor Domingos, now general manager of the business, and Pedro Clarinha, the owner, started searching among the 80 employees for the person who came closest to displaying these requisites. When they thought they had found the right person, Luís Morgado pointed out he was not tall enough and had short arms.
Pedro Clarinha was in a quandary. In order to guarantee the survival of the century-old secret he had to compromise. He decided to share the secret recipe with Vítor Domingos thus ensuring a transitional phase. “The secret can only be memorised, it can’t be written down”, Domingos disclosed to Portuguese television network SIC, where he told the entire story. Once he had the knowledge, Domingos got down to work and become a ‘mestre’. A ‘mestre’ is one of the master pastry chefs, the select few who know the secret recipe of making both the pastry and the cream filling. “I don’t think there is a secret as well kept as this” in Portugal, said Domingos.
We could count on the fingers of one hand the people who at present know the secret. And to guarantee its security you cannot be too careful. The holders of the secret can never “travel together, never eat the same food in the same restaurant and never ride in the same car”, Domingos told Portuguese daily Diário de Notícias.
The 15th best delicacy in the world
A few years ago, Killian Fox, from “The Observer”, roamed the globe with a few top experts in world cuisine in search of the best delicacies. And guess what? Among 50 other best things to eat, the pastéis de Belém were listed in 15th place with this description: “Creamy, flaky custard tarts – served warm with cinnamon – are one of Portugal’s great culinary gifts to the world.”
Renowned as it is, it is no surprise to find the shop receives customers from all over the world. Some of these visits have become famous in their own right. Domingo recalls one particular day when there was a huge commotion outside the patisserie and, totally unexpected, Shimon Peres showed up surrounded by some 200 bodyguards, had some water and a custard tart and then left. No one had known about his visit beforehand.
Yet, this story began two centuries ago. “The original recipe for the pastéis de Belém is monastic and comes from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos”, the grand 16th century Hieronymites’ monastery located in Belém, Miguel Clarinha, manager of the old patisserie, told PDV.
When the secularisation of monasteries was decreed by the Portuguese state in 1834, their residents needed to find other ways to earn a living. The person who kept the recipes for this delicacy went into business with a sugar refinery and started selling the pastries, Miguel explains. In 1837 the delicacy was even patented.
The years turned the enterprise into a thriving business and the owners were forced to expand the premises. Nowadays, the patisserie’s factory lies adjacent to the main building, in Belém. PDV went to take a look at the place where it all comes together.
The secret room
This is where the magic begins. With the door fully closed, the master pastry chefs make the pastry and the cream. The process runs through different phases and rooms where nothing can be neglected. First, both pastry and cream filling need to rest – the former between eight to 10 hours, for the flour to settle, and the latter can be used earlier but only at specific temperatures.
The pastry needs to be rolled out and cut into rounds to create the base of the sweet tarts. After this has been achieved, the pastry is put into moulds. In this factory everything is done by hand. The pastries are then topped up with the cream filling, and once a batch has been completed it is time for the delicacies to go into the oven, where they are baked for 20 minutes at 400 degrees.
Once they are ready, it is time to taste them! “Crispy. The blend between the texture and the cinnamon is divine. I love it. Wonderful. It’s worth the wait”, declared Flávia de Sá, Brazilian tourist, when she finally got to taste one of these pieces of heaven.
The majority of tourists arriving in Lisbon bring the mandatory recommendation to go and try the pastéis de Belém. This was the case with Flávia but also with Frederic Mas. “We knew of these pastries because we have some Portuguese friends and they told us if we went to Belém we needed to go to a certain patisserie and try them out”, said the French tourist adding that they “taste good”.
The numbers do not lie. On a good Sunday it is possible to sell 50,000 pastéis, Miguel Clarinha claims. And the place is open every day of the year. We “have never been closed a single day in the last 20 years”, says Miguel. After all, with its 60 grammes and 130 calories, the secret of the pastéis de Belém lies not in the pastry alone. The secret also lies in the cream.