"This type of delicious tartlet is sold throughout Portugal as pastel de nata but here in Belém they produce a unique version that many believe to be the best".
Name the best place to go for coffee and pastries.
There's a Starbucks round the corner . . .
Isn't there always. I was thinking more of a destination, a magnet for lovers of coffee and cake. A place whose handmade pastries and smooth espresso are worth packing your toothbrush, hailing a taxi and getting on a plane for.
Difficult . . . New York, Vienna, perhaps Rome?
All have their merits, I agree, but the true home of the dream combination is Lisbon.
In its golden age the city was the busiest port in Europe, bringing riches from its colonies, including the best coffee from Brazil and Timor and fine sugar from the Caribbean. It was only a matter of time before the Lisboetas were hooked, and regarded a fix of glucose and caffeine as an essential part of their daily life.
Are excellent pastries and coffee part of the city charter then?
Almost . . . the standard is consistently high, with most of the good cafes serving several superb double acts: Bolos de arroz (sweet rice cakes) with tar-black espresso called bica, soft honey madalenas washed down with a galaõ (Portuguese milky coffee). It is hard to go wrong in the centre of Lisbon with its well-established pastelarias, but to experience the godfather of coffee and pastrydom, we have to go a little further afield, to the waterfront suburb of Belém.
Come on, you're reading a travel article, buster - besides, it's cheap. You can get there on the No15 supertram for only 60p. After 20 minutes you will arrive at the historical finery of the main square of Belém, Praça do Imperio. Have a glance at the glories of the Portuguese golden age that surround you then head east down Rua de Belém to number 90. Here on the left is the target of our taste mission, the Antigua Confeitaria de Belém.
Sounds very grand; is it a shop or a cafe?
Both - and it has the atmosphere of a busy bar when last orders have been called. Customers jostle to collect their pastries while kitchen staff and waiters keep up a never-ending waltz, delivering mountains of freshly baked goodies to counter and table. It is a perfect place for people-watching, with an operatic cast of characters of all ages and backgrounds. The atmosphere gets less frenetic beyond the front line.
How big is it?
You'll find a labyrinth of rooms, some cavernous halls, other intimate corners and corridors, all decorated with azulejo tiles and furnished with simple wooden tables and chairs.
A pretty blue tiled cafe, but why the fuss?
They have a secret weapon, called pastel de Belém.
Which is a what?
The cake of the house, a small cup of caramelised flaky pastry filled with eggy custard cream and browned on top like a crème brûlée. This type of delicious tartlet is sold throughout Portugal as pastel de nata but here in Belém they produce a unique version that many believe to be the best.
How do they make them?
We can only guess at what goes on in the secret room. Apparently only four people in the world know the formula.
So, Mr Bond, a secret room?
Yes, a small locked chamber where the chefs prepare the pastry and custard before mass production begins.
Where did the recipe come from?
From the kitchens of the nearby monastery of Jerónimos. In those days egg whites were in big demand to clarify wine and toughen the rigging of sailing ships. Rather than waste the yolks, the nuns combined them with sugar to make extra-rich fillings for cakes. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1834 the kitchen workers took the recipes and continued to do what they knew best - bake. The shop was established in 1837 and pasteis de Belém were unleashed on the paying public.
To great acclaim?
People were hooked and the cafe's reputation grew - to the point where it became a regular Sunday outing to visit the monastery and call in for cakes. Now the Antigua Confeitaria de Belém is a national institution and boasts the president as a regular. More than 10,000 pasteis are shifted on weekdays, with a staggering 25,000 on Sundays.
Are they available at other outlets?
No, everyone knows that to get the real thing you have to make the pastel pilgrimage. All the cakes are baked on the premises and sold warm at the cafe or over the counter.
I'd better order quickly; what's the etiquette?
Give the cakes a sprinkling of cinnamon and icing sugar from the shakers provided, and take a slurp of the unsweetened bica coffee. The crispy pastry, sweet soft centre and bitter espresso make a great combination.
Are they expensive?
No, 70 cents (less than 50p) is a snip for a national treasure, so don't hold back. While I was there, I watched one man polish off eight at a single sitting.
When's the best time to visit?
It's hard to beat the early morning when the air is full of the sweet scent of fresh baking and customers are just beginning to take refuge from the brilliant sunlight.
Can I fly them home?
They do sell blue-crested packets of six, complete with your own portion of cinnamon and icing sugar to take away. But beware, the cakes only maintain their magic for a few hours while they are still warm.
The pastel de Belem is at the summit of the Portuguese pastry mountain but there are other gems to track down: