When we finally went on a walking tour around Lisbon, Paolo, our guide, noticed my growing obsession for 'pasteis de nata', the Portuguese egg custards that seemed to be everywhere. I wasn't too interested in them at first, because they looked uninteresting. Maybe also because I've tried similar in Macau a long time ago and they were so blah. But almost all the coffee kiosks and pastry shops here had them, and most of the locals were ordering one with their coffee.
I was intrigued so I ended up trying one too, and that was the beginning of my fixation. These were so different from what I had way back. Those were lousy, and these were delicious! Excited about my discovery, I told Paolo that I was now taking every opportunity to eat one--at breakfast, morning snack, snack after lunch, mid-afternoon snack...basically whenever we passed a pastry shop. He then said, or I should say--he emphatically stated that I had to go to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, home the original and famous Pasteis de Belem where the tarts are still made exactly as they were more than a hundred years ago. Only a handful of people are privy to the closely-guarded secret recipe and many times you will see the bakers inspecting one tart at a time as the trays come out of the oven.
"Remember, if there's a long line, just go to the very front and into the shop, confidently, just like a local. Go behind the counter and into the cafe. If that's full, keep going in, there's a big room at the back. If that's full, keep going in because there are other rooms just as big. Sit down and just order. For a few euros more, you are sitting and getting served without standing in line with the rest of the tourists."
It's information like this that makes a local guide worthwhile--someone who'll tell you exactly how to do what the locals do so you're not inconvenienced like a clueless tourist.
He then went on to tell us the origin of these pastries: long long ago, farmers used to donate eggs to the church as offerings, and the priests made use of the egg whites (as an adhesive, as starch for clothes, etc), but didn't know what to do with the yolks. The clever nuns baked them into these tarts and as the cliche goes, the rest is history. Paolo was so enthusiastic as he described these egg custards, you would think it was a new discovery for him too.
Their heritage, displayed on the store's walls
We ducked into the monastery and found a mass going on inside, so like good Catholics, we attended the rest of it even if it was in Portuguese (but spent most of the time actually studying the interiors and staring at the magnificent vaulted ceiling.) After that we walked to the pastry shop which was over at the next block. An exciting dinner lay ahead for us, so we really had no business snacking...but we just had to try this.
Maybe because it was low season, or maybe because it was 8 pm. There were hardly any people in the shop! If Paolo hadn't tipped us about the long lines, we would've never thought this place was popular at all. Well, not until we saw the huge kitchens and the cavernous dining areas inside. They must really get a lot of people in here. Paolo mentioned that they sell thousands and thousands of pastries a day.
After debating how many tarts we should have, we decided to restrain ourselves and try just one tart each. They arrived in a few seconds, still warm from the oven. The custard was luscious and not very sweet, and the pastry was light and flaky. We ate it very slowly, savoring every bite. After we ate the last of the crumbs, we realized we didn't sprinkle the tarts with cinnamon the way everyone else did. Oh well...
They taste much better than they look.
The verdict? These were absolutely the best tarts I had in Lisbon. And if they originated in Lisbon, Portugal, then its safe to say that these are the best egg tarts in the world! Definitely worth the effort coming all the way here if only for the tarts (okay, the monastery too) I'm glad Paolo told us about it, and happy that B also insisted specially since I was getting lazy and wanted to spend the hour before dinner in the hotel, instead of chasing after a tart! At least we were sensible enough to have just one each, so we didn't ruin our appetites for our degustation dinner.
Takeaway boxes at the back of the counter
If I ever find myself back here again, I hope there will be a long long line of people at the counter, and I'll walk to the very front of the line, like a local, and into the back room where I'll order a 2 or 3 tarts. Or maybe 6. Then I'll leave like a local too, with a whole take home box, which I'll eat on the way home.