Pasteis de Belem: history in a bite

Pasteis de Belem: history in a bite

From its beginnings as a small front counter back in 1837, to its current incarnation as a bakery boasting 400-seat capacity, Pasteis de Belem has long been an institution in Lisbon, Portugal.

With a history stretching back almost 200 years, it’s not surprising Pasteis de Belem has undergone numerous evolutions in its time. However, according to Pateis de Belem manager Miguel Clarinha tradition has always remained firmly ensconced at the heart of the business.

Located in the Belem district of Lisbon, the family-owned business is the only place world-wide where you can grab a Pasteis de Belem – a traditional Portuguese custard cake (Pasteis de Nata) that features a twist that’s a closely held secret.

According to Miguel the story begins at the start of the 19th century, when all the monasteries and convents in Portugal were shut down as a result of the 1820 liberal revolution. In an attempt at survival someone from the Belem-based monastery, Mosteiro do Jeronimos, began to create and sell sweet pastries. Word began to spread about the delicacies and, combined with the growing popularity of the monastery and the Torre de Belem [Belem Tower] as tourist destinations, and visitors began to flock to the region, which at the time was considered far from Lisbon and mainly accessed by steamboats.

By 1837 the daily baking of the Pasteis de Belem pastries began in the buildings attached to the local sugar cane refinery, following a secret recipe that had been passed on from the monastery.

Miguel said part of the pastry’s enduring allure lay in the fact that although it was possible to find a Pasteis de Nata fairly easy around the globe, it was only at the Pasteis de Belem café that you can get your hands on a true Pasteis de Belem pastry.

“The Pastel de Belem is a Pastel de Nata made using a special and unique recipe… and this bakery is the only place in the world where the Pasteis de Belem are baked and sold,” he said.

“Despite all the changes (to the bakery) over the years the recipe has remained the same and we still make the pastries by hand, in our factory.”

And, with a staff of 200 employees on the books and approximately 25,000 Pasteis de Belem sold at the bakery daily, you can’t argue with the popularity of the institution.

However, Miguel said experience also plays its part.

The secret Pasteis De Belem recipe is only known by the master confectioners, who are hand selected to be trained. This process takes between six month and one year to accomplish.

“We always choose someone who has been in the bakery for a long time – 15 to 20 years – and who we trust to be a part of the Pasteis de Belem family,” Miguel said, adding that the recipe has remained unchanged and is exclusively known to the master confectioners who hand-craft the pastry and cream in an onsite secret room.

Trays full of Portuguese custard tarts

However, Pasteis de Belem’s range isn’t limited to the famous pastry, and includes Bolo Ingles [fruit cake], Bolo Rei [Christmas king cake], salgados [deep-fried savoury snacks], and Bolo Rainha [Christmas queen cake].

Miguel said the range remained fairly standard throughout the year, with the exception of seasonal addition like the two Christmas cakes, and Folar [traditional Portuguese bread] at Easter.

“We also produce a new range of marmalade in October and November each year,” he said.

“We bake everything fresh, daily. But it [our popularity] comes down to the quality of our products. Keeping the traditional recipe and baking process, as well as honouring our history and traditions helps create us a clear identity and connect with our customers.

“Focusing on the quality of our products and service while keeping up with what our customers expect from us is crucial for success.

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