The sugary scent coming from the bakeshop reminds me of everything that is sweet and good and nice. I am standing outside Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, right in the heart of the Belém District in Lisbon. The takeout queue for the bakeshop’s famous product is getting quite long. I begin to worry that there won’t be any left by the time I get to the counter. But Alexandra, my pretty Portuguese friend who is babysitting me today, motions me to go inside the café where a table is waiting for us.
A waiter who looks like he has been working here since the bakeshop opened in 1837 takes our order with impressive swiftness. One minute he is here and the next, poof! He is gone!
As we wait for our order, I contemplate on the importance of this moment. With my fundamental love for all forms of egg tarts and egg pies, my expectations are quite high. If people say ‘one must not leave Portugal without tasting pasteis de nata, and more particularly, Pasteis de Belém’, then by God, they better be right. Because I went all the way from Barcelona to Lisbon for this and I will get my effort’s worth!
According to tradition, the Catholic nuns living at the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos created pasteis de nata (sing: pastel de nata) at the beginning of the 19th century. But when the monastery was shut down during the liberal revolution in 1820, the nuns started selling the pastries to the shop next door in order to survive. The glorious egg tarts were an instant hit and were eventually called Pasteis de Belém. Before long, the closely guarded “secret recipe” was passed on to the shop. Master confectioners, most of whom, women, are still using the recipe to this day. You can see them hard at work inside the bakeshop, tirelessly creating tart upon glorious tart of custard heaven. They say 10,000 pasteis de Belém come out of the bakeshop every single day!
At last, our egg tarts arrive. Now it’s time to take a bite.
The ensuing gustatory pleasure engulfs me, and for a second, I forget where I am.
As in a distant dream, I am a child again in Tondo—savoring a slice of Pinoy egg pie with that heavenly custard tucked between a tasteless crust and a slightly burnt top. Only this time, the taste is richer, the crust fluffier and the experience perhaps a little more pleasing because, after all, I am in Portugal. As I savor the luscious flavor in my mouth, a thought occurs to me: this is how happiness tastes like. I am now convinced that of all the many contributions of the Portuguese to the world, this is the most precious. For this very reason, I thus pledge my undying love for Portugal.
Visit Antiga Confeitaria de Belém at No. 84 Rua de Belem, Lisbon. Open daily from 8am-12mn except in Winter when it closes at 11pm.
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