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Oct 17 2014

Upper Crust

Bread may be the staff of life in Spain, but it hasn’t always been valued as a fine food—until now. Really good bread is on the rise, says Paul Richardson


The importance of bread in the history of Spanish eating is reflected in its use as an ingredient in the national cuisine. Cooking with bread represents almost a culinary subgenre in itself: consider the hearty soups and stews employing day-old bread (gazpacho, a cold soup made with tomato, sweet bell pepper, cucumber and bread, and flavored with garlic and vinegar, is the most obvious example, with sopes mallorquines, a vegetable soup poured over thinly sliced dry bread, and the pan-Spanish sopa de ajo, garlic soup, not far behind); migas (crumbling day-old bread, moistened with water and then gently simmered with oil or lard and a variety of sweet or savory accompaniments), which are hugely popular in much of rural Spain; and the use of bread as a thickener for sauces, especially in Catalan cuisine, to say nothing of bread-based desserts like torrijas (bread soaked in milk, dipped in egg and fried in olive oil, then sweetened with sugar or honey, and often spiced with cinnamon).

After decades in which it was generally undervalued, bread is at last making a comeback, this time as a gourmet product with rich gastronomic potential. To give one example of this trend at its highest level, the influential food congress Madrid Fusión has for the last two years (2011 and 2012) reserved a section of its program for bread. The consensus at this year’s event seemed to be that restaurants in Spain are at last waking up to the possibilities offered by artisan bread, and chefs increasingly choose either to make their own bread or depend on the services of a trusted master baker. Chefs Oriol Rovira of Els Casals (1 Michelin star), Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca (3 Michelin star) and star baker Anna Bellsolà (Baluard Barceloneta Bakery), all agreed that breads offered in restaurants could and should be much more carefully matched with the menu in question, for every dish has its corresponding bread variety. A year earlier, the conference had hosted a fascinating workshop held by Daniel Jordà, who is bringing back traditional recipes for long-fermented sourdough breads as well as introducing innovations like olive breads and original panes de autor (signature breads) featuring unusual combinations like white chocolate and strawberry, wasabi, melon, and Ibérico products at his bakery La Trinidad in Barcelona.

Traditional Breads

Castile (central Spain) is, historically, the heartland of candeal bread. The term refers to the variety of wheat also called candeal, which has a low moisture content and less gluten than usual. The dough for candeal bread was commonly stretched and folded (a technique called refinado in Spanish) instead of kneaded and only allowed to rise once, producing a dense, compact loaf with a thick, golden crust.

Other traditional breads of the candeal type are the bollo sevillano (Andalusia), the telera of Córdoba (Andalusia), and the famous Pan de Valladolid (breads from Valladolid, Castile-Leon). The best known of these classic Valladolid candeal breads is the lechuguino, so called in reference to the concentric circles sometimes traced on its crust, giving it the appearance of a flower or lettuce. The loaf is round, flat, with four or five raised edges forming a square or pentagon around its surface, and has a matte, smooth, golden crust.

Lechuguino has, as yet, no official protection as a traditional product, which is not true of another important Spanish candeal bread, the Pan de Cruz de Ciudad Real (Castile-La Mancha). This exceptional bread was only the second in Spain to receive (in 2009) the coveted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Pan de Cruz de Ciudad Real. Shaped in a compact, rounded loaf, the Pan de Cruz de Ciudad Real is immediately recognizable by the cross-shaped incision across its rounded exterior and the mark of a C (deriving from the Order of Calatrava, a religious and military order which dominated the area in the 13th century) pricked onto its base. Cut into the chestnut-colored crust, and the crumb is dense, soft and consistent, with no holes, this compactness of texture being explained in part by the low humidity of the air in this part of La Mancha. According to the Regulatory Council of the PGI, an unopened loaf of Pan de Cruz should keep in good condition for up to a week.

Some other good breads are easier to find in Galicia, and Galician people are fussier than most about the standard of their daily loaf. The fame of the Pan de Cea (which has been made in something like its current form for the last 700 years in Carballiño county) precedes its distinction as the first Spanish bread to receive the PGI. In shape, Cea bread is bulbous and slightly elongated, with a thick, dark, chewy crust, often bearing a deep cut which opens wide in the oven giving the loaf a characteristically disjointed aspect. Like many of the world’s best breads, Pan de Cea is made using mother dough (masa madre), implying that fermentation is set in motion not by fresh yeast but by using dough from a previous batch, creating a continuum that stretches back for years, if not generations.

In the northern province of La Coruña, in the small town of Neda, bread is an exaltation, the Galician term for a gastronomic fiesta in homage to a valued local product. Since 1989 the Festa do Pan takes place on the first Sunday in September, with feasts and tastings of the famous bread as well as the local empanadas (dough filled with meat, fish or vegetables and oven baked) and panes de huevo (sponge cake). The town recently inaugurated the Ruta del Pan de Neda (Bread of Neda Route), an itinerary taking in the old flour mills on the Belelle River (historical focus of bread production in the town), a guided visit to one of the town’s 20 bakeries, and a tasting of local breads and empanadas.

Regional specialties in traditional baking can provide some of the nicest surprises in any gastronomic tour of Spain, especially in the south, in Andalusia. The mollete, a soft, flat wheat flour bun from the town of Antequera (Málaga), is now found over a wide area of Andalusia and beyond, making it a popular choice for everything from breakfast pan tumaca (toasted country bread rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato and dressed with a pinch of salt and extra virgin olive oil) with lashings of olive oil, to the best of all possible ham bocadillos (sub sandwiches, as opposed to being made with sliced bread).

The Andalusians love their typical breads, and none more so than Pan de Alfacar, hailing from the small town of Alfacar, outside Granada. With no less than 60 bakeries in Alfacar and neighboring Víznar, local bread is very much a going concern—especially since Alfacar bread was singled out in 2011 as the latest Spanish bread to be a candidate for PGI. The Pan de Alfacar logo now appears in the windows of all good bakeries in Granada and the bread is offered on the tables of the city’s most prestigious restaurants and tapas bars.

Dark and handsome?

Spanish attitudes to bread are largely determined by the recent history of the country. Historically, white bread, made from fine wheat flour from which the bran had been removed, was the food of the well-off urban classes. The bread of the rural poor was generally darker, denser, and sometimes made from rye, especially in non-wheat-growing areas. The result was that eaters of dark bread came to despise it and long for the fine texture and mild flavor of white bread. As soon as white bread became widely available, the chewy and strong-flavored dark breads of the past naturally fell out of favor.

Meanwhile a sea change is underway. The organic movement in Spain champions local grain varieties, whole meal flours and the return to cereals like rye, spelt and buckwheat. City-dwellers moving into the country, constituting what is known as the “neo-rural” movement, have begun to demand denser, darker breads, rejecting the pappy white barras popular with rural locals. The wheel has therefore come full circle. Artisan breadmakers are springing up both in the major cities and in the rural context, providing mother dough, sourdough and rye breads to a new generation of Spanish bread consumers. Real-bread initiatives are popping up in the most surprising places: I recently discovered the fabulous Pa Moreno de Blat Xeixa (a product of the Ark of Taste of the Slow Food movement), a bread from Majorca made with the ancient local wheat variety xeixa by Tomeu Morro and Biancamaria Riso in their artisan bakery outside Pollença (Majorca, Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea).

Among the cities, Barcelona (Catalonia) leads the way. Barcelona-Reykjavik, founded by an Icelander and a Catalan, has built up a loyal following in the trendy neighborhoods of the city center with its fabulous sourdough breads in the Scandinavian style, while baker Anna Bellsolà has found success with the wood-fired oven and stone-ground organic flours she uses in her new-wave Baluard Barceloneta Bakery. Meantime, old-fashioned Barcelona flequers (bakeries, in Catalan) like Turris (presided over by star baker Xavier Barriga), Fortino, Forn Boix and La Trinidad have consolidated their range of rustic and multigrain breads, adding such novelties like olive and maize bread, organic and whole meal breads, cocas and muffins to keep up with increasing demand.

While on the subject of Catalonia, it would be a shame to conclude this brief overview of traditional Spanish breads without mentioning Pa de Pagès Català . It’s a big brown wheel of a loaf, of the shape generally known in Spain as hogaza (mass of bread which is shaped into a rounded form and baked in one piece). The flour used is wheat, the crust is hard and crunchy, the interior compact yet relatively moist, with a pronounced toasty flavor and an agreeable acidity on the palate. Bakes from Catalonia have applied for the PGI on behalf of the Pa de Pagès Català in 2011.

The message is clear: dull Spanish bread has had an easy ride for much too long. Fine traditional breads are back, and they’re looking for a slice of the action.

The importance of bread in the history of Spanish eating is reflected in its use as an ingredient in the national cuisine Paul Richardson/©ICEX
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