Every morning at 7, a lone figure pushes open the blue iron door and enters the secret room of a Lisbon bakery. The door is then locked from the inside while the man gets to work with the secret recipe. There’s only one escape clause: if the burden of guarding the recipe ever becomes too much and the man’s heart should give way under the strain, an alarm system will manually override the system and release the door. The lone figure? One of only four so-called “secret masters”, the revered confectioners who make Portugal’s most celebrated – and imitated – patisserie, the revered pasteis de Belém.

The café/bakery, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, is just down the road from the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in the Lisbon suburb of Belém and opposite the Monument to the Discoveries, which celebrates Lisbon’s maritime connections. This is the place from which Vasco de Gama set off to discover the new world and where, according to history, Domingos Rafael Alves arrived from Brazil in 1837 in search of a money-making scheme.

Alves met Elias Martinez, a Galician patissier who made popular cream tarts at the nearby monastery. That same year, the two joined forces to open a shop, Refinacao de Asucare Confeitaria de Belém. With the subsequent arrival of the steamboats from downtown Lisbon, the area boomed with visitors, particularly families on a Sunday afternoon, and the shop evolved into more of a coffeehouse than a shop.

Today Pedro Clarinha, a fifth-generation descendant of the founder, is the owner and the café produces 6m tarts a year with an average of 16,000 sold daily – every one hand-made and prepared on the premises. The café is open every day of the year and until midnight during summer months, with locals arriving en masse throughout the day to get their tarts warm from the oven.

“The convent had a huge tradition of sweets as the nuns used to use egg whites to iron their habits, leaving the egg yolks to make pastries,” explains Penélope Clarinha, the owner’s niece, who acts as the company representative. “You could say we were Lisbon’s first ever take-away,” says Penélope, who has never been allowed into the secret room.

The bakery employs 150 staff but only the three pastry chefs appointed by Clarinha himself actually know the secret recipe of the filling. The last appointee (“the youngster”) had worked for the bakery for 20 years before he was taken into confidence. Indeed, the three trusted pastry chefs have all signed confidentiality agreements and face enormous fines should they ever divulge the recipe.

Outside the secret room, a dozen or so middle-aged women in hairnets are hunched over low tables in a busy kitchen area, crafting the base by hand into small tin pastry cases. The process remains labour intensive, the only concession to modernity being the sleek new ovens that have replaced the old wood-fired ovens that baked the tarts the nation took to their hearts.

Before the custard-like filling is added, the pastry is stretched and cut into small pieces, then shaped into a shallow dish. The tarts are cooked for 20 minutes and left to cool for 15 minutes in large metal trays. A supervisor checks for quality, discarding burnt or misshaped ones, before taking the tarts though to the café. By the time they arrive at the tables, they’re still warm – with the whole process from the start to the customer’s mouth taking less than an hour.

Despite becoming a national icon and a must-see stop on the city’s tourist circuit, the bakery faces a challenge from copycats. Rival bakeries around Lisbon produce similar tarts and international demand ensures an aircraft leaves Lisbon most days with consignments destined for Portuguese-speaking outposts such as Brazil and East Timor. But it’s the Asian market that is worrying the pastry purists, fuelled by an obsession to discover the secret recipe that makes the tarts so unique.

The expatriate British chef Andrew Stow famously modified the recipe to sell them at his Lord Stow’s Café in Macau, near Hong Kong, before going on to open a chain of egg-tart cafés across China. Asian entrepreneurs, explains Penélope, are regularly dispatched to infiltrate the inner sanctum of patisserie perfection.

Just then, 52-year-old Eliseu Ramiro Rodrigues, one of the secret masters, emerges from behind the blue door. Ramiro has devoted his life to the quest for the perfect tart, having joined the company aged 15. It was 19 years before he was asked to become one of the chosen few and he has never looked back.

“The day they told me I had been chosen, I felt worried but proud,” he says. “It’s a big pressure to bear the responsibility. Now, every night when I go to bed, I feel I have to do better the next day. But one thing is certain: even if the Chinese came with a lot of money, I’d never break my contract,” he says.

“Nobody likes to see their product remade in an inferior way,” adds Penélope. “We have registered the pasteis de Belém as a trademark and, in the future, we would consider opening more branches to meet demand – so long as we can maintain the standards of the family tradition.”

Back in the adjoining café, local workers, families and tourists are sitting together in the main room, bound together by a communal moment of nirvana as they sink their teeth into the soft, custard centre of the tart. In a room where politicians rub shoulders with ordinary folk, people come together against the backdrop of blue-and-white antique mosaic tiles to appreciate a recipe that celebrates its 170th birthday in 2007 yet remains one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of patisserie.

Meanwhile, I bid my farewells and step out in the mid-morning Belém sunshine with a pack of six take-away tarts swinging from my arm for a bargain €4.80. All this talk of tarts has given me quite an appetite.

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