We had two reasons for visiting Belem: the Berardo Collection of modern art and the famous custard tart (pasteis de nata) bakery. The first was easy to find and offered a lot more than we expected. In fact we spent so much time there, including a delightful lunch in the garden, that it seemed we might not reach the pasteis before closing.
It wasn’t so much the art in the Berardo collection, although it is very good, or even the fusion of Italian and Japanese food in the restaurant. We fell into conversation with a woman who had brought her daughter to the arts festival for families. Having heard about it we decided to take part – and taking part was operative, as we found out. The event was billed as “Le Grand Ballet” and we imagined it as the culmination of a workshop for children. It was obviously popular because we had the last available tickets.
On entering we looked for somewhere to sit. “On the floor” we were told. “It is interactive.” We sat by a wall until a young woman in a token seventeenth century costume invited us to stand. “Invited” was not quite the word: it quickly dawned on us that it was a command. Equally we realised that the central character in the event was Louis XIV, the Sun King and originator of ballet as a courtly dance form. He descended from the stage and proceeded to lead us all, grandparents, parents and children, in a rehearsal of the movements and gestures of ballet in the Versailles tradition.
Ten minutes of moderately easy gestures and steps lulled us. Then he began a series of leaps, turns and spins that for us soon reached the level of impossible. All very entertaining, however, made more so by adult gasps and giggles and children’s lively laughter.
The young woman joined a young man on stage where they began to play an electronic version of dances by Marin Marais, to which the king performed as well as directing his court (i.e. the “audience”) in a corps de ballet. He finished, after some strenuous leaps and turns, by collapsing to the floor beside a young girl who found it irresistibly funny.
At this point we resumed the roles we thought we had come for, as audience, and gave the three performers the generous applause they thoroughly deserved.
On leaving the arts centre we set off in search of the bakery, knowing only that it was close to the convent, now a national museum. We were astonished by the length of the queue, thinking we would never get in. However, a smattering of Portuguese helped in translating a notice that informed us the queue was for pasteis to take away. Easily passing through the queue we looked inside and eventually found a table to share in one of the smaller rooms, with a window on to the bakery.
The pasteis seemed to be on a continuous cycle of baking. Large trays are taken from the ovens to a table where staff with care remove them from individual cups to cool down before delivering to the sales counter or the waiting staff. It wasn’t long before we were asked for our order, which quickly came. One pastel each to be dusted with cinnamon and two coffees, a capuccino and a strong black one.
We had eaten pasteis in the hotel every morning at breakfast, and another at a local bakery that probably supplied the hotel, but those of Belem are something else. The custard is firmer and clearer in flavour, with cream and egg very much in evidence. The cinnamon is a grace note. There is nothing to compare with them: no wonder they are differentiated from all pasteis de nata sold elsewhere by being called pasteis de Belem. The recipe is secret, derived it is claimed from the convent itself.