One 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 in 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 chat about the 70-year-old traditional baker who has been making a specialty bread from the city of Vidigueira for over half a century. She comments 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 its 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!
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.
It you’re having breakfast out in Portugal, head to a café where you can order a torrada (toast) with your Portuguese coffee, made from thick slices of fresh bread drenched in butter. There are also fatias douradas or “golden slices”, the Portuguese equivalent to our French toast; made virtually the same way but soaked separately in milk than egg, fried then coated in cinnamon and sugar but eaten the same way as toast, dry without syrup.
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.
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.
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.
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