Gautier BATTISTELLA - 2011-01-31
A pastry, a tradition and two jealously guarded recipes - the Pastei de Nata has become the subject of a relentless war between two factions: the partisans of the Confeitaria Nacional in the Praça da Figuera and those of the Antigua Confeitaria in Belém.
Lisbon is the Rome that wanted to travel. Breathing the breezes of the Tagus and its mistress, the great ocean, she whispers sweet words to travelling dreamers, the descendants of Vasco, Portugal’s native son of heroic history. Yet besides the “the Sea of Straw” (Mar da Palha) and its apparent golden, shimmering serenity, there is a battle raging. This confrontation is, however, a sweet affair, a peaceful war between Lisbon’s two leading confeitarias in which the only weapon is puff-pastry. Awaiting a cease-fire, we bring you the latest news on the conflict!
The heart of the polemic is the Pastei de Nata, a delicious custard tart pastry whose secret recipe is jealously guarded by the Lisboeta confectioneries.
To my right is one of the oldest patisseries in the city: the Confeitaria Nacional situated in Praça da Figuera, in the Baixa area. It was founded in 1829 by Baltazar Roiz Castanheiro, and it has belonged to the same family for five generations. His melt-in-your-mouth pastei de nata are served at room temperature and eaten at the counter, in a Belle-Époque decor of mirrors and wrought iron. Upstairs, a tea room has more substantial snacks on offer such as cod in batter and a selection of pastries.
The other specialty of this venerable establishment is the Bolo Rei (the Cake of Kings), a recipe imported from France otherwise known as the Gâteau des Rois. After the French Revolution, the traditional Cake of Kings (known previously as "Limoux") became the "the Cake of the Sans-Culottes." As a response, Royalist Portugal adopted the name Bolo Rei, until 1911, when the Republicans deposed and renamed it "Cake of the Republic"! Nowadays order is restored and the Bolo Rei assumes the shape of a crown, whilst fruit and candied pine nuts are gently placed on the surface symbolising regal jewels. A truly royal treat!
Moving away from Lisbon’s centre we come to the neighbourhood where the legendary Vasco da Gama was born. First a few words of history - the gourmet lovers can wait! The Belém district speaks volumes of the ocean and reminiscences of past discoveries. Belém (Portuguese for Bethlehem) was the port of embarkation for the caravels that set sail for unknown lands. The elegant Belem Tower became the symbol of Portuguese worldwide expansion. More importantly, the Jeronimos Monastery (Order of St. Jerome), built by King Manuel I to glorify Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India, is a masterpiece of finesse (with an incredible cloister!) which beautifully synthesises Gothic and Renaissance styles. Now it’s time to move on from palaces to matters of the palate!
To my left, is the Antigua Confeitaria de Belem. Its reputation extends across borders. A friend of mine, upon hearing that I was leaving for Lisbon, exclaimed "You absolutely have to try the pastriesinBelem... served warm!" His captivated eyes lit up imagining of a round of delectable pastries, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon, in a room decorated with azulejo tiles. Antigua Confeitaria, founded in 1837, is the most famous producer of Pastei de Nata (which are also called Pastei Belém, to give you an indication of their importance!) The establishment jealously guards the secret recipe of its delicious custard pastries, which, as promised, are served hot from traditional ovens. I sampled them on the spot, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon, in a room decorated with azulejo tiles.
So what’s the verdict? The jury, with salivating mouths, might need extra time to sample a few more! But if I had to decide, then between you and me, if you prefer them warm, buy them in Belem. If you like them unpretentiously rich and creamy, the Confeitaria Nacional are the pastries for you. Come and let your own taste buds be the judge!
Praça da Figuera, 18 B, open every day.
Antigua Confeitaria de Belém
Rue de Belem, 84-88, open every day.