Pasteis de Belém

December 26, 2011 § 6 Comments

When you land in the Lisbon airport, there’s a heightened anticipation for what comes next. There’s the usual ritual of waiting in line, searching for your luggage, going through customs, all transforming you from in transit to landed. But here, arriving isn’t the best part. You drive out of the airport towards the river Tagus. As you get close, you first see the seagulls. Then, you see the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery, monuments to the many “caravelas” that departed from a nearby dock. A marble Henry the Navigator leads a pack of explorers, pointing the way to the new world. But that’s not why you came here. You came here for a small pastry shop just down the road.

In 1834, the government closed down all Portuguese convents and monasteries. The friars of the Jerónimos Monastery needed a source of income. So, like other religious orders in Portugal, they used their ancient recipes to make pastries for sale. The Jerónimos monks made little cups of flaky pastry dough filled with custard and topped with cinnamon. All monastery pastries are delicious, but these “pasteis de Belém” are a piece of heaven. The recipe hasn’t changed since the pastry shop opened in 1837, and everything about it is shrouded in mystery. Only three master patissiers, who prepare the cream and dough in the “Oficina do Segredo” (secret workshop), know the recipe.

These pastries are ephemeral bites of cinnamon and warmth. They must be eaten right away, never saved for later. Every coffee shop in Portugal produces an imitation, but none quite captures the lightness of the dough, the creaminess of the filling. These imitations even bear a different name: “pasteis de nata.” Because there is only one place in the world where you can get “pasteis de Belém.”

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém, 84-92, Lisbon. Tel. 21-363-7423. Email: pasteisdebelem@pasteisdebelem.pt. Click here for website.

The perfect espresso cups

December 12, 2011 § 4 Comments

Coffee lovers are on a constant search for aromatic coffee beans, roasted to perfection. They get up early on weekends to study Italian, hoping to uncover the nuances lost in the translation of their espresso-machine manual. They mumble incantations like “ruotare la manopola in senso antiorario per aprire il rubinetto di erogazione vapore” with a passion normally reserved for the poetry of Dante. They listen in rapture to the machine’s rumbles as the water rushes through the coffee at the ideal pressure. But, after all this effort, they pour their brew into bulky, thick porcelain cups. European cafés use these cups, they tell you with pride. True, but cafés only use them because they rarely break. The coffee tastes so much better in thin coffee cups! Vista Alegre, the great Portuguese porcelain maker, produces the best espresso cups we have ever tried.  They have the perfect shape and come in bright, joyful colors. These cups are hard to find outside of Portugal. So, if you are visiting Portugal, here’s your chance to bring something unique to your java friends.

Here is a link to the Vista Alegre website.

The Portuguese house

December 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

Raul Lino is a Portuguese architect who was influential in the first half of the 20th century. In an era shattered by two World Wars and the Great Depression, Lino craved the stability and permanence that he associated with tradition. He codified this tradition, inherited from the Romans and adapted throughout the centuries, creating the archetypal Portuguese house. Using stone, brick, and terracotta roof tiles, he designed homes that infused the vernacular architecture with proportion and elegance. Some felt that Lino should have looked forward instead of backwards, adopting the modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. But, by embracing the past, he helped preserve the sense of place that we feel when we see a Portuguese house.

In 1912, Raul Lino built a private residence for his family, the “Casa do Cipreste” in Sintra. It is perched on a hill, overlooking the Sintra Palace. Thanks to the blog of Rui Morais de Sousa, a virtuoso of large-format photography, we can visit this graceful home with just the click of a mouse (here). What a privilege!

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