Pastéis de Belém are probably the most well-known and loved pastries by tourists visiting Portugal. More than 20.000 are made daily by the Confeitaria (pastry factory), located very close to the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos’ Monastery.
The monastery played a central role in the history of these delicacies. The recipe for the Pastéis de Belém was developed by the monks that used to inhabit the monastery in the 19th century. With the liberal revolution in 1820, the monks’ situation became fragile, and in 1834, all convents and monasteries across the country were closed. In 1837, the monks started to look for new sources of income, and thus sold the recipe to a gentleman named Domingos Rafael Alves, who owned a sugar refinery and a general store nearby. That same year, Domingos started to make and sell Pastéis de Belém, on a store next to the refinery. On that day and age, when the Pastéis started to be made and sold, according to the original monks’ recipe — which is used to this day –, the route from Lisbon to Belém was a long one, made on steamboats, but that didn’t deter tourists from visiting the area, moved by curiosity about the Jerónimos’ Monastery and the Belém Tower.
From the 19th century on, the Pastéis de Belém continued to increase their fame beyond borders. But the greatest impulse came only after the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which ended a long four-decade-long dictatorship. Back then there were 60 people working at Pastéis de Belém, whereas now there are over 150. Of those, only 4 know the historic recipe, making it one of the most well kept secrets in the country, which some have attempted to steal, but none succeeded. Three masters who work at the “Oficina do Segredo” (“Secret Shop”, where the Pastéis are made) and one of the brand’s managers are the only active people who know the secret behind the creamy custard and flaky pastry that delights so many. Apart from these, only two more know the recipe that’s been kept untouched for over 180 years, former masters bounded by a confidentiality agreement signed when they started working at “Oficina do Segredo”. Not anyone can become a master; you have to work for many years in the Confeitaria, and possess specific personality traits, like a strong character and a high trustworthyness. To this day, all processes are artisanal, as to ensure nothing is altered (especially the taste!) from the original recipe.
One legitimate question that many have raised — namely former local governments — is why doesn’t the brand export, when it’s got so many fans abroad, who would pay handsomely to enjoy these pastries at home. The answer, as given from Miguel Clarinha, one of the business’s heirs, is that the need for freezing, essencial for exporting, could jeopardize the quality of the Pastéis, a risk they’re not willing to take. So now you know: if you want a taste of one of our fantastic Pastéis de Belém, you really have to come and visit us. It will be a pleasure to have you!