One of the best reasons to travel anywhere is for food. Local food is a great excuse to go to a new country. It’s even better if you already know that you love the local cuisine. I thought I loved ramen before I went to Tokyo, but my Tokyo ramen experience changed the way I view noodle soup. I actually said to my husband, “this ramen is changing my life,” let alone my view of noodle soup. Drinking Guinness in Dublin is a completely different to drinking it anywhere else in the world. This past weekend we were in Lisbon, Portugal where we made a pilgrimage to the mecca of Pastéis de Nata.
I have eaten quite a few pastéis already in my life. I was introduced to them in Paris by my Portuguese cousin-in-law three years ago. At their wedding later that year I opted out of the cake option and into the “how many pastéis can I eat without popping out of my dress” option. Soon after, “Portuguese tarts” started appearing in Butler’s Café here in Dublin of all places. I didn’t partake. Mass produced pastéis in Ireland didn’t feel right to me.
We’ve been talking of a trip to Portugal for real pastéis, among other things since that first Paris experience. This past weekend, it happened. The entire four days were geared towards getting to Pastéis de Belém. We even booked our Air B&B to be closer to it.
Knowing this was the plan, I decided I would make sure to partake in a few other pastéis once in the country. Just for comparison sake. A scientific study, if you will. My first pastéis and coffee was at the airport, right off the plane. I figured that even if airport pastéis were bad, they would be better than I’d had yet in my life. I was not wrong. The filo pasty was flakey and crisp. The custard was smooth but not runny. It was sweet but not too sweet; no donut sickliness here. Just hints of sweetness to take the edge off the coffee. And it was a bargain!
My second pastéis was the next morning at a local café. Now we were nearer to Belém, but not there yet. Every café makes it’s own pastéis. Our local had a slightly runnier custard but still had the same unassuming, comforting taste. If you are not a person who goes for donuts or pain au chocolate because they’re too sweet, pastéis are a great option.
Third time’s a charm: it was now time for the main event. We got to Pastéis de Belém on Saturday afternoon which seemed to be when everyone else in the area decided to go for their pastéis too. The queue was massive, both for take away and to sit in. It reminded me of Café du Monde in New Orleans, the bignet mecca. Tiled walls, no fuss, not fancy, but more like an upscale cafeteria. Even with our “local knowledge” about the huge back room, we still had to wait about twenty minutes for a table. Most of the people in the queue were Portuguese. There were families, couples, a pair of sisters in their 80s, four month old twins . . . no age limit for love of pastéis!
Luckily once we sat down we knew exactly what we were going to order. They come to the table warm. They are fresh. Pastéis de Belém pumps out about 30,000 pastéis daily. DAILY. But I’m not surprised. Plates were passing us by that had up to ten pastéis on them. For a table of four people. Those people are winning at life, make no mistake.
These super pastéis have a perfect nest of filo pastry as their base. They look like many of the others in café windows around town, but when you bite into the warm custard, you know you’ve just taken your pastéis experience to the next level. The custard is whiter and lighter. We sprinkled a healthy amount of cinnamon and a light dusting of powdered sugar on these to bump up the taste explosion. Our pastéis game went from JV to Varsity in a matter of seconds.
Like my ramen experience, or ordering Guinness at an Irish pub outside of Ireland, having had my Pastéis de Belém experience, no ordinary pastéis will do. Not that it will stop me from ordering one occasionally if the mood strikes, but I’ll be that person nibbling away who says, “you know, you haven’t really had a pastéis until you’ve had one in Belém.”