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Traditional Portuguese Bread: Investigating the Various Styles and Preparations of Pão

Pao com ChouricoOne of the most inviting smells in the world is that of warm, fresh-baked bread! On many an evening, sitting on my balcony, I am greeted to this mouth-watering aroma drifting on a warm current over the neighborhood from the local bakeries preparing the next morning’s supply.

Bread baking in Portugal is just as an important part of the culture as is wine, cheese and pastries. And even though most Portuguese consume all of these on a daily basis, bread is the only one that plays an integral part to every meal, consisting of the entire meal in some regions! It’s also safe to say that encountering stale, unappetizing bread is a rarity when dining at a restaurant or cafe, as a server can simply walk across the street to the nearest bakery and pick up a bag of fresh rolls for under a euro! It is also considered a cultural faux-pas to buy pre-packaged “Wonder” bread in the supermarket when you have a huge variety of fresh bakery bread to choose from for less than half the price.

To exemplify the Portuguese passion for bread, let’s take a peek at a video (attached below) of a 70 year-old traditional Alentejo baker, one of the oldest in the region, who has been making a specialty bread from the city of Vidigueira for over half a century. She walks us step by step through the bread-making process, commenting on the importance of adding pureed potato and orange juice in order to impart a distinct flavor to the bread. She also highlights the fact that when the wood burning oven hits that ideal temperature, your dough had better be ready, as time is of the essence! Twenty years ago she would make over 1,000 loaves of bread a day, but now 50-60 is sufficient as a result of the unfortunate decrease in demand. Her daughter diligently works alongside her rolling out the dough, fully intending to carry on the family business; and it’s with their perseverance that traditional bread-making still goes on today.

Of course every region of the country has their own type(s) of traditional bread; so many in fact that we cannot possibly cover all of them here. Instead, I will highlight some of the most renowned specialty breads, as well as the various preparations in which the Portuguese enjoy their bread throughout the day!

To That Wonderful Aroma of Fresh-Baked Bread,

Andrea Smith

Note: The Portuguese word for bread is pão, but as you will read below, not all breads are called bread. Some breads are called cake, due to a particular preparation and/or texture. Additionally, not all foods called “bread” are actually bread. For example, Pão de Lo is actually a type of sponge cake.

Bread For Breakfast

It you’re having breakfast out in Portugal, head to a café where you can order a torrada, or toast, made from thick slices of fresh bread drenched in butter. There is also fatias douradas or “golden slices”, the Portuguese equivalent to our French toast; made virtually the same way but soaked separately in milk then egg, fried then coated in cinnamon and sugar but eaten the same way as toast, dry without syrup.

Notable Regional Breads

Pão de Centeio “Rye Bread” (Tras-Os-Montes) This is a dark rye bread from Northern Portugal that is so dense, it is sometimes referred to as pão de quilo or “1 kilo bread”. It is made from farinho de moleiro or stone miller’s flour of a very compact grain, which gives it a special flavor and has less gluten than wheat.

Broa de Milho (Tras-Os-Montes) Since wheat is difficult to grow in the harsh northern soil, bakers make another very dense corn bread using 3 parts corn to 1 part buckwheat. As expected, the bread has a yellow interior and a very rich, hearty flavor making it a much-loved bread among the Portuguese. It’s great slathered in butter or with cheese.

Pão Alentejano (Alentejo) Made from wheat of a compact grain, this bread is somewhat dense but not nearly as heavy as the breads of the North. Also known as Pão de Cabeça “Head Bread” because of the large lump that pops out of the top of the bread when baked. This head was used like a pot cover in the olden days when workers used to take it to work with food filled inside. Pão Alentejano bread is not only a great bread on its own, but is also used as the main component in several traditional Alentejo dishes, such as Açorda, a traditional dish throughout the country composed of predominately soaked, mushy pieces of bread – the texture varying for each region. The Açorda á Alentejana is prepared as a soup with large pieces of this bread mixed with garlic, cilantro and poached egg in broth. Another bread dish that is exclusively from Alentejo is Migas, an entrée which is literally soaked bread crumbs that are fried up with butter and served with pork ribs and choriço. Migas is also prepared in a sweet version- Migas Doces, made with cinnamon, egg yolks and sugar instead.

Meaty Breads

Pão com Chouriço Originally from the central region of Ribatejo, this bread is made all over the country. The texture of this wheat bread has a smoother consistency from the dough being whipped in a machine and later formed into rolls and filled with Portuguese sausage. Pão com Chouriço is the Portuguese substitute for our hot dogs, as they are sold at sports events, on the beach, carnivals, festivals and is great as a late night snack.

Bola de Carne This soft, pan-baked wheat bread is made with ham, bacon and large-sized chouriço (sausage). It’s a great bread to serve as an appetizer in the colder months, especially around Christmas.

Holiday/Celebration Breads (Sweet)

Bolo de Ferradura From the west and central Ribatejo regions, this bread is slightly sweet flavored with anise and lemon. Commonly referred to as bolo-de-noivos or “bride’s cake”, the bread is formed into tiny little horseshoe shapes and is normally given as a gift from the bride to her guests at the wedding.

Pão-por-Deus The Portuguese don’t really celebrate Halloween, but they do celebrate the day after, which is the Catholic holiday All Saints Day. And on this day, they celebrate a version of of trick-or-treat, where the children in rural villages go around asking for pão-por-deus or “bread for God” with their typical handmade bags. In return, people give them sweets and a “broa” called broa de pão-por-deus, which is different from the pastry, pão de deus. The bread is similar to the Ferraduras recipe, but they add raisins and pine nuts to the mix.

  • Steve

    That lady in the video, looks like the typical portuguese avo (grandma). My avo makes some pretty darn good bread here in Toronto herself, probably even better back home in her wood burning oven similar to that one.
    Is there such a drop in the need/demand for bread? Or is it that she just physically doesn’t want to work so hard? At some points of the video she was hard to hear/understand.

  • Andrea

    That’s a good Steve, I think it’s a combination of both. Obviously at her age and after making bread for 20yrs, the grandmother might need to be more careful not to overexert herself. But also since virtually every supermarket here now bakes their own fresh bread throughout the day in a large quantity and variety for a good price, it’s much more convenient for people to buy their bread there instead. I even admit myself that I usually go to the supermarket as well to buy it, however if I come across a smaller, family run bakery that offers something different that I can’t find in the supermarket then I go for it. Especially if I could find that speciality Pão de Vidigueira around here, I’ll just have to pay a visit to Alentejo soon to get some! :)

    • Andrea

      * sorry correction: a good question!

  • Steve

    Thanks for the great article, I am going to pass it on to my wife’s uncle who’s alentejano himself, I am sure he will enjoy the video, he always likes to go on about the great food and wine of the Alentejo.

  • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton Fontes

    The main reason is that now there’s a bakery everywhere, even in the supermarket. In my town, there were only 2 bakeries and now there are 4!

    You forgot to mention that Pão de Centeio e Brôa de Milho are also typical of the Beiras regions.

    There is also a holiday/celebration bread called Folar da Páscoa, that the godfather offers to the godchild celebrating Easter. It’s a sweet bread formed into a horseshoe shape or round with eggs on it.

    Nice post!

    • Andrea

      Hi Milton,
      Good to hear the amount of bakeries has doubled in your town, thanks letting me know about the Beiras region, it was quite difficult to find decent information about Portuguese bread, especially about their origin!

      Hmmm, I think I have heard about Folar de Pascoa, you might want to check this out ;) http://catavino.net/food/folar-da-pascoa-portugals-delicious-easter-bread/

      Glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for reading!

      • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton Fontes

        I forgot that you had already posted about Folar da Páscoa… But I did read that post! :)

  • José Eduardo

    Congratulations Andrea on yet another excellent post about what is done in Portugal. It’s a pity that even the Portuguese are turning their backs onto something marvelous. Keep up the good job and see you at EWBC.

    Chhers!

    • Andrea

      Thank you José Eduardo! Can’t wait for the EWBC :D

  • Jay

    A Philadelphia-area bakery, some years ago, sold “saloio” bread in vending kiosks within supermarkets. Then the supermarkets arranged to buy the dough and finish it themselves; they still do. The quality never has been as good s the original, maybe because that original bakery had better ovens than the Blodgetts the supermarkets use, and for other reasons. Is Saloio a valid variety of Portugese bread, and if so, what makes it different? What are the supermarkets doing wrong?

    • Andrea

      Hi Jay,
      Pão Saloio is a country-style of bread originating from the Saloio region, (a bit derogatory for “countryfolk” who live there) in Ribatejo and to the west of it. It’s produced in a traditional manner using a smooth grain wheat flour (or a mix of white and wheat) but has crunchy outer crust. The supermarkets here say it’s perfect to spread creamy, “Amanteigado” style cheese on it :)
      As for the supermarket in Philly, there could be a variety of reasons why they can’t produce it the same way but like the saying goes, “nothing is ever as a good as the original,” so I guess you’ll just have to come to Portugal to try it for yourself to see the difference ;)

  • Betty Rallon

    I have searching for a recipe of Portuguese Bread (White). So far I haven’t had any luck, so I am wondering if you might have a recipe that you might want to share with me. I would so appreciate it and will make this bread immediately.

    Thanking you so much for all your help.
    Betty Rallon
    Warspite, Alberta
    Canada

  • http://www.catalyst-energy.com Sports Energy

    I am not fond of these type of things.It looks good but not really in nature.
    Thanks for this information.