Sweet Belem

35 New Canterbury Rd Petersham, NSW 2049

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Opening hours Mon-Sat 8.30am-5pm Sun 9am-4pm
Features Outdoor seating
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Chef John De Almeida
Payments Cash
Phone 02 9572 6685

"The pastry in the tart - it's a simple thing but there's so much work involved," he explains. "You make a normal puff-pastry dough, relax it, fold butter into it, relax it again, then make smaller rolls, relax it again. Next day, roll it even thinner and cut it and shape it into the tart tins. All those tight, crisp layers are the result. Some just spread a big sheet and cut it. It's not the same."

Then he fills it with the custard, bakes it and burns it. Has he ever gone too far? "Sometimes. But it's like making proper toast - if you don't take it to the edge, it's just warm bread."

De Almeida, 42, grew up in Belem, a seaside suburb of Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, surrounded by pastry chefs.

"All my uncles worked as pastry chefs at one time," he says. "As a child I loved the Portuguese croissants - they're sweeter, more like brioche - and the guardanapo, the folded napkin, a square of sponge wrapped around Portuguese custard."

Inevitably, he went into the family business. "I started my apprenticeship at 16. My uncles had high expectations of me. Sometimes a bit of pressure is a good thing."

Not so inevitably, he came to Sydney. Childhood memories of an Australian television show (The Dirtwater Dynasty) left a deep impression and in 1992, at the age of 24, he arrived here with his childhood sweetheart, Lina. He worked in big hotels, most notably the Nikko with chef Michael Moore.

In 2003, he opened Sweet Belem Cake Boutique in Little Portugal in Petersham. From the blue-and-white-tiled tabletops to the painting of Belem Castle on the wall, it's a homage to home. But the real treasure is behind the spotless glass cabinets. De Almeida's pastries, both traditional and his own creations, are the result of years of patiently perfecting his craft.

And learning about copyright. De Almeida has also patented his "Sweet Belem rose cake", a mud cake swathed in a swirl of rose-coloured white chocolate couverture. It's as luscious to look at as it is to eat. "This was another dream of mine," says De Almeida, "to have a shop of my own. And it did happen."

Don't miss ... Sweet Belem tart, $3; Sweet Belem rose cake, $50.