The Portugese pasterias and one particular coffee place in Belem

Not many know that the tradition of pastries in Portugal dates back centuries. Perhaps that’s because the pastries are made and consumed the same day, with fresh ones baked daily with Pasterias, small mom and pop type bakeries that dot every city in the country serving a variety of home-made savoury and sweet pastries and breads.

The Portuguese seem to have quite a sweet-tooth, with over two hundred choices in pastries. Almost all the pastries are made from three basic ingredients: sugar, cinnamon and egg yolks. Now cinnamon and sugar could be procured easily from colonies like Brazil and possibly India but the egg yolk has an interesting story behind it.

The famous Port wine, Portugal’s greatest export those times, needed egg yolk for the fining process since the export markets favoured the wine which was refined that way for its special flavour. After beating up so many eggs, it was the egg yolks that probably had to be discarded. Thus, baking pastries became a simple way to make an extra buck.

It is also said that in the many convents during those times, the nuns used three egg whites for ironing their habits as the egg whites produced crisp linen. These nuns also pitched in to make pastries as gifts for visitors and charitable donors. With the support of winemakers and nuns in the convents, the Portugal pastry obsession turned into an essential part of the cuisine as individual families used different spices and recipes to create their own flavours which they guarded zealously. This resulted in many family-run pasterias.

Perhaps the world owes much to the wine makers, nuns and monasteries for coming up with a tradition that charms every visitor to this day.


Did the Portuguese introduce coffee? Have a pastry at Belem to know the answer.

The common name for coffee in most of Portugal is Bica. It is said, the name comes from ‘beba isto chávena aquesida’ which means, ‘drink from a warm cup’. Another version is ‘beba isto com açúcar’, meaning, ‘to drink with sugar’ but given the Portuguese obsession with the sweet tooth, this sounds superfluous.

Others would say that since espresso comes from a nozzle, the word might have come from the word ‘bica’ which also means a ‘fountain or tap’.

In Porto, (home of the famous Port wine), it is called Cimbalino, taking the name from the machines that make it. Whatever be the name, the nation is one of the top coffee guzzling nations in Europe. Portugal’s cafes have an endless variety of coffee. A popular coffee is Café Pingado which is a dripped coffee and comes with a bit of hot water. A taller Café Pingado gets a new name – Café Longo!

My favourite desi fascination was for Café Galao – the one with three parts milk and one part coffee. A weaker version with more water is called Garoto. It is popular with children. ‘Garoto’ means ‘a child’, hence the name.

Everybody talks of Brazil when it comes to coffee but it was the Portuguese who introduced coffee to them.

The famous pastry shop at Belem

Belem is at the far end of the city of Lisbon. It exemplifies the sea-faring, adventurous spirit of the country’s nautical history. Great voyagers like Vasco de Gama set forth on expeditions across the world from here. Belem is replete with historical sites. Interestingly, it has a particular sweet connection with history.

Few visitors to Lisbon can resist a visit to the Belem district of Lisbon. It is here that a landmark pastry shop has been serving guests since 1837. Barely few hundred meters from the Jeronimo monastery, this unique pastry shop is always crowded with customers. They arrive from overseas. They come equally from the adjoining neighbourhood.

The story of this pastry shop is an interesting part of Portugal’s history.

Pastry business for mortal salvation

Just after the liberal revolution of the 1820s there was a severe economic collapse in that part of the world. Businesses folded up. The cash crunch hurt even those in pursuit of the life beyond.

The monks of the Hieronymites Monastery faced a dilemma. Donations had dried up. It was difficult to survive. So they decided to take recourse to more temporal measures for survival besides prayer.

The monks went proactive with a business plan. The idea was not to get too involved in business but manage to make both ends meet. They needed a business which brought in money. But the work should suit their monastic lifestyle too.

They started making their own pastries which were sold at a store close by. Thus was born the Pasteis de Belem – now a very touristy stop for any visitor to this suburb of Lisbon. This Portuguese pastry is not a weigh watcher’s dream. It is definitely a joy that doesn’t come every day. The monks did go back to their vocation but the pastry shop has continued with its business.

There is a long queue outside almost every day. Unlike touristy shops, it has an equal, if not more numbers of local patrons.

The pastry looks more like a small quiche. It has a slightly flaky and crispy exterior with an interior soft like custard. The amazing mix of Spanish and French custard at this shop is unique. It is clearly different from the fare available at the dozens of street corner shops at most of the places we visited in Portugal.

The holy fathers’ blessings, it seems, has worked well at Pasteis de Belem.

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