Take a stroll through the streets of any Portuguese town and you are sure to pass by the windows of a pastelaria (patisserie), enticing you inside with the rows upon rows of pastries and sweet treats that can be spied through the glass. An integral part of Portugal’s cuisine, doces or sweets are available in hundreds of different incarnations, many possessing a rich cultural heritage as well as a delicious taste.
Pastéis de nata – traditional custard tarts – are Portugal’s best-known sweet treat but represent only a small part of the country’s abundant confectionery. Every region has its own speciality, as do some towns. Sintra, for example, is famed for its travesseiros – soft pillows of puff pastry enclosing an almond-infused egg custard – while the cigar-shaped pastel de Tentúgal is named after the small village where it was invented.
Portugal’s culinary landscape is one of the most diverse in the Mediterranean, thanks to the country’s voyages of discovery throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. These international explorations provided Portugal with a direct source of sugar and the country soon set up sugar cane plantations in Madeira and Brazil. The church has also been integral to the development of Portugal’s patisserie; it was one of the only organisations that could afford sugar from the outset. In fact, many of Portugal’s modern confections are known as doces conventuais, or convent sweets, a term ascribed to sweets created by nuns.
Each convent created its own recipes, all of which have been kept closely guarded secrets to this day. It is no coincidence that the majority of Portugal’s doces are based on sugar and egg yolk, as egg whites were used to starch nun’s habits and clarify convent wine. The religious origins of many sweets has been preserved in their names, such as fatias do bispo (bishop’s slices), barrigas de freira (nuns’ bellies, a Portuguese version of bread pudding) and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven – although in fact this is an almond cake).
Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon is one of Portugal’s most famous pastelarias. Named after its signature bake, a version of pastéis de nata, Pastéis de Belém is a family-run business currently operated by the fourth generation. The bakery produces 20,000 tarts every day but demand often outstrips supply and its not unusual to find a queue forming outside; happily, the finished product is always well worth the wait.
The company’s current owner Miguel Clarinha spent much of his childhood at the store and is understandably proud of the family business. ‘It makes you feel part of the pastelaria’s history and that’s a strong motivation to give it your best to keep the tradition and quality alive,’ he explains. Only three pastry chefs know the secret recipe behind Pastéis de Belém’s dough and custard filling and the tarts are all prepared behind a solid metal door. The mystery is very much in keeping with the tradition of secrecy associated with doces conventuais.
Manteigaria is a more recent addition to Lisbon’s pastelaria scene. The bakery produces tarts with perfectly crisp, flaky pastry and creamy egg custard, caramelised on top. It also takes a more modern approach to production, inviting visitors to watch its pastry chefs at work as they transform eggs, sugar, cream, butter and flour into perfect pastéis behind a pane of glass. Be sure to try one fresh from the oven, liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon and served with a hot cup of coffee.
Despite its modernity, Manteigaria and pastelarias like it are committed to honouring Portugal’s artisanal heritage, even when producing large quantities of pastéis every day. The practice of making pastéis by hand on site – known as fabrico próprio –has been strictly maintained, whether the products in question have recipes shrouded in mystery or are prepared in full view.
Portuguese confectionery has long been associated with socialising and both Pastéis de Belém and Manteigaria offer cafés for their patrons. Pastéis are rarely eaten as a dessert and instead tend to go with another Portuguese institution: coffee. ‘Many Portuguese people eat breakfast outside of the home as it’s reasonably inexpensive, fast, filling and convenient,’ explains Frederico Duarte, author of Fabrico Próprio, a book dedicated to Portuguese patisserie. Whether seated at a café or standing at a bar, the custom is to enjoy pastéis alongside a bica, or espresso.
‘This kind of unsophisticated but fresh and ubiquitous patisserie is unique to Portugal,’ notes Duarte. ‘Portugal is one of the countries with the most inexpensive pastries and certainly the most inexpensive espresso in Europe.’ It also happens to play host to some of the best.