Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Affairs of the tart...

I am a lady of my word.

You may think it's a touch frivolous, but food can take me to extremes. I really am that devoted to the culinary cause that I will travel. And not just around the country. To a different country. And not just for the general cuisine of a nation. For one thing. In fact, a thing which is of such miniscule dimensions, you can demolish it in one whole bite.

But love is love and it makes the individual an irrational being. So, as promised, I travelled to Portugal in search of the king of tiny kings - the Pastéis of all Pastéis: The Pastéis de Belém. In my defence, I did need a break and when considering places to escape to, Lisbon was everything I desired in a city (seafood, lard-based pastries, interesting architecture). But yes, it was those palm-sized perfections that took me there too.

A concentrated locale of monasteries, pastries and shrines to the sea, Belém is a tram/train ride away from the centre of Lisbon. As mentioned in a previous post, the place is home to what are thought to be the best Portuguese custard tarts in the whole wide world, served by one eatery alone - Pastéis de Belém. Pilgrimages are made to the shop, such is its cult status (my own journey a testament to this). It would seem that in Belém, religion is not just found in its monastery. To eat in, customers sit down and meditate over a small pile of pastries, whilst those martyrs more pressed-for-time lean at the counter and consume theirs whilst standing. To take away, which by the way, is a novel experience as the Portuguese seem to have no concept of eating food anywhere else but the place they buy it, a hexagonal-shaped tubular box is filled for that special epiphany on the move. However you buy them, accompanying the tarts are celestial dustings of cinnamon and sugar (given to you in sachets if you choose them to-go). The cafe itself is of a similar darkness to the neighbouring monastery and as we were not blessed with the best weather throughout our stay, we chose to get five to eat outside, since the sun had just made an exclusive pope-like guest appearance.

Box de Belém

Sitting excitedly on the benches, I tipped out a tart into my hand from the box. It was still warm from the oven and looked not dissimilar to the one's I get from Sid's. After a brief dust of cinnamon and sugar, I tentatively bit into the Pastéis. Its pastry was crisper than I was used to. The residual heat emanating from the filling lent it a slightly wobbly mouthfeel. But (and this is a big "but") despite the pastry's superior texture, it wasn't quite as delectable as the ones back home, whose vanilla-scented filling is whipped butter-smooth. The Pastéis de Belém's interior in comparison had a slight lumpiness to it, and depended on the cinnamon to give it that boost in flavour. This is not to say it wasn't delicious (I did consume my entire share with a contented, sugar-high smirk) - it just wasn't as good. Sacrilegious? Probably. No doubt the people of Belém are mapping out some kind of warped monastic blood vengeance in response to this, but then they are 985 miles away (give or take) so I'm not exactly quivering like the custard in a freshly bitten Pastéis.

The Pastéis de Belém

Well, that, and they'll never find me.


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