Making my aquaintance with Portuguese bread has been similar to discovering Portuguese cheese. At first I thought the Portuguese had got it all wrong, what with the tasteless mass-produced fresh cheese offered on every restaurant table. Totally boring, I thought. But these first impressions were wrong. There is a world of decadence out there, of both cheese and bread, if you know where to look.
So here it is. The Papo Seco, or white roll, is the family staple of Portuguese bread. It is breakfast to the suburbs and not called dry throat for nothing. It is ordinary. And stale the next day. I prefer the smaller, cuter, Bico, or beak. Straight from the oven with butter and vegemite. Yum.
The bread truck’s horn is our alarm clock. I’ve given strict instructions to Bruno the Bread Man to start honking as soon as the village is in sight as waking up, getting up, pulling on coat, finding money, finding shoes and running down to the road takes much longer than the brief window of opportunity he normally allows on a stop. If I was organised then I’d hang out a bag with the next day’s order but I have an ingrained habit of breakfast spontaneity. I can’t decide the night before what I’ll want the next morning. And unlike the bread truck at our previous village, this one has more than the usual to choose from. It has cakes.
After the white rolls, the next most popular bread in our village is the Cacete. It too is white and no different in recipe than the rolls, but that’s like saying there’s no difference between spaghetti and spirale. They have different functions. The Cacete’s job is to make a good sandwich. The One is a sandwich enthusiast and he rates the Cacete for this purpose. It’s light and fluffy with a crunchy crust. Excellent with just tuna or ham, also good with jam. But rubbish as toast.
Other whites include the baguette, which can be the same shape as the French but not the same, and pão forma – a square loaf, sometimes twice as long as a loaf of sliced white death. It’s used in cafes for tosta mista, (ham and cheese toasted sandwich) and torradas (toast) cut an inch thick with lashings of butter. Bring your own home made jam and order up a galão and breakfast bliss is yours.
Moving on to where there are more variables and opportunity for baker’s creativity. The Mistura is the Portuguese light brown bread, it also comes in rolls and loaves. At about 37% wholemeal, it is as I say, light brown, not brown. Pão de Mistura is mostly ordinary, but if you shop around you can find exceptional loaves in this class. Anyone near Vila Facaia (Pedrogão Grande territory) should try their mistura, now available from the small supermarket rather than from a bearded woman in a shoe in the wall shop with “depósito de pão” handwritten above the door. I always wondered if she was the baker too and I suspect so, if only to drawn a line between a curious old woman and a curiously delicious kind of bread. Ultra spongey, moist and elastic. I have been known to eat an entire loaf in one sitting. And it seems bakers around here have started copying the Vila Facaia style… I suspect it’s doubling the yeast or something. The bread truck’s mistura is pretty good.
Better though is the Pão de Agua. Note the irregular shape of the loaf, signalling its slightly rustic and artesenal character. I think it’s made with white flour but it’s not especially white in colour. The best way to describe the flavour is watery. I’ve no idea why it’s better than the mistura but it is. The bread’s texture however can be very holey and therefore renders it unacceptable for sandwiches according to The One (who goes a little overboard with mayonnaise). I don’t mind a bit of oozing with toast, and toasted, the Pão de Agua is unreal.
The same can be said for a Pão da Avó, which has a similarly rustic and home made personality: grandmother-style to be sure. It’s made from a stronger dough with more wholemeal flour. Then there’s something called Pão Rustico, which I’d say is the name given to something that is not a Mistura, Agua or Avó.
This here is a Broa de Milho. I suppose one might say this is the traditional Portuguese bread. Very dense, with a tightly woven texture, quite dry. Has a much longer shelf life than the others. Makes excellent toast. It is not corn bread as the name suggests, but half cornflour (maizena, cornstarch) and half wheat flour. Always keep your eye our for a real Broa de Milho which looks just the same except yellow because it’s made with corn meal. Quite special.
That’s it for the basic range, all you can expect really from a bread truck. Next stop is your local pastelaria or dedicated padaria where you’ll find more interesting shapes and flavours, of infinite regional variety. My favourite regional bread is Pão de Alentejana, a cojoined-twin looking white loaf that a local café makes even though we are not in the Alentejo. Portuguese will argue it’s not authentic – if you want to be sure it’s the genuine article, you’ll have to go to the very region to find out. I’m not so pendantic about the names, just grateful that the baker is doing something slightly different.
Darker wholewheat and black breads are hard to find in Portugal. Try organic markets where expat Germans and Dutch supply genuine home made artesanal breads, made with love and good health.
Surprisingly a good place to look for bread is in the freshly baked bread bread department of chain supermarkets. Maybe high turnover raises the quality, but perhaps breakmaking is an art and it’s all up to the individual baker and their oven. In Lousã, if you’re passing, the Lidl has great fresh bread and the baguettes and croissants at the Intermarché are an excellent imitation of the real thing. Really, nothing much beats the white stick of France, or for that matter, the black breads of Germany. And who doesn’t miss sourdough? If you have major longing for the bread of your origin you can of course, bake your own, or even buy a breadmaker and bread mixes from better supermarkets.
There are many sweet breads too if we are not being too precious about what is bread and what is not. Pão de Leite is like brioche. Pão de Deus is not like anything but is good with ham and cheese. Pão de Ló is like a sponge cake, so, not bread. Broainhos cannot be found on the internet so maybe they are an invention of Figueiró Dos Vinhos. They appear at Christmas and Easter and are small dark fruit breads which I insist on being toasted and buttered despite it being against Portuguese law. Broa Doce is a generic name given to another sweet bread but not Little Sweet Corn Bread.
Also to consider is this. The Bolo de Berlim. Not a bread. A cake. But not to be ignored.
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