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There's history - and a secret - in every bite

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You'd have a better chance of outlawing wine in Paris than of separating the Lisboans from their beloved pasteis de nata, delicious custard tarts that can be consumed in two or three bites.

Particularly revered are those made from a mysterious secret recipe at the Pasteis de Belem, a bakery and coffeehouse in the southwest section of the city. Here, the little tarts are spoken of in hushed tones.

Rightfully so, because the recipe goes back almost 200 years to the nuns who baked the pastries at the nearby Jeronimos Monastery. During the 1820 revolution, many religious orders were forced to disband. Money talked during those hard times, and the recipe was sold to a confectioner.

Today, that same recipe is perhaps the most closely guarded secret in Portuguese cuisine, allegedly known to only a precious few at the Pasteis de Belem.

Actually, one can buy the custard tarts everywhere in Portugal - throughout the world, for that matter - in any Portuguese bakery or restaurant, where they are officially known as pasteis de nata.

But only at the Pasteis de Belem do you get the original monastery special. In fact, they're called pasteis de Belem here. Pasteis de nata is for the rest of the world.

Is it pure hype?

Not to the Portuguese.

When I merely mentioned the words pasteis de Belem to a taxi driver he looked skyward and thumped his chest. A translation wasn't necessary.

"If you put 20 pasteis de nata in front of me and only one was a pasteis de Belem, I could pick it out," said my guide, Priscilla. A number of other residents I talked with also were confident they could pass a "blind tasting" of the tarts.

One was a woman I met at the former Expo '98 site, now a national park. [Editor's note: The original misstated the year the Expo took place.]


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