Pastel de Nata and Pastel de Belém are not the same
Let me be honest with you: I am writing this to save myself some time.
Over the years, I have spent hours explaining the difference between pastel de nata and pastel de Belém to foreigners who have visited my home country of Portugal. Wherever we meet in the world, they always mention the pastel de nata that they tried and loved in their last visit to Lisbon. And then I always realize they didn’t try pastel de nata but pastel de Belém.
Then, an explanation follows. Now I can just direct them to this article. I might even direct some Portuguese to this article. Yes, I’ve had to explain this to some of our own people. After reading this, you will know more about this delicacy than some Portuguese.
Let me warn you in advance though: you might need to book a plane ticket to Portugal once you finish reading. But heck, why wouldn’t you?
What is Pastel de Nata?
The cake in the picture above is pastel de nata. You might have heard of them under the name “Portuguese custard cake”.
They’re the most famous pastry in the country, and for a good reason — they’re delicious. The outside puff pastry is filled with a creamy interior prepared with milk, sugar, flour, eggs, cinnamon, and lemon. It’s a tiny bite of heaven.
You can find them, literally, in every café in the country. The Portuguese love to eat them for breakfast with a shot of espresso, or after lunch, or in the middle of the afternoon. There is never a bad time for pastel de nata.
They became so famous that these days you can find them all over the world. I have eaten pastel de nata in France, the UK, Hungary, or Latvia, for example. But only rarely with the same quality that you find in Portugal, as one would expect.
What is Pastel de Belém?
When foreigners tell me they ate pastel de nata on their trip to Lisbon, they always refer to the shop in Belém, with the long queue by the door. That is when I know: they didn’t eat pastel de nata, but pastel de Belém.
What is the difference?
Pastel de Belém is the original pastel de nata.
Belém is now part of Lisbon, as the city grew over the years., but in the 19th century the two settlements were separated. Belém was home to the Belém Monastery which, like many others in the country, was shut in 1834 as a consequence of the 1820 Liberal Revolution.
In 1837, as a means of subsistence, someone from the Monastery started selling these cakes in a nearby shop, and they quickly gained fame under the name “Pastéis de Belém”.
The recipe was kept unchanged and under major secrecy. To this day, only a few limited people learned the secret and, whoever had such privilege, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
As a result, other bakeries and cafés were never able to truly replicate the original pastel de Belém. Naturally, they are very similar, but not exactly the same. This is a difference you can not explain in words but you can definitely feel on the first bite.
Where to Try Them
There is only one place where you can try Pastel de Belém: the one mentioned above, located in the Belém neighborhood of Lisbon.
It welcomes millions of visitors every year, selling as many as 20,000 pastéis per day. Thus, the line by the door that everyone mentions in their story. Still, definitely worth the wait.
On the other hand, you can find pastéis de nata everywhere you go in Portugal. For the best ones in the Greater Lisbon area, you can visit the following places:
- Pastelaria Santo António
- Mercado do Peixe
- O Pãozinho das Marias
- Pastelaria Alcôa
- Pastelaria Aloma
- Confeitaria Nacional
- Nata Lisboa
It’s not a matter of choosing to try pastel de nata or pastel de Belém. You’ll try both, trust me. The question is rather: how many will you eat during your stay in Portugal?
Pastel de Belém was elected one of the 7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy, in 2011. And UK’s The Guardian elected pastel de nata as “one of the 50 best things to eat in the world”.
I agree. And I dare to say: pastel de nata is one of the 50 best things you can eat. But maybe the single best thing you can eat is 50 pastéis de nata!