Baking: Rising from the yeast
Soft, fluffy, crusty, hardwhy the Portuguese legacy of bread still rules the Goan table
It’s 7 on a dull, grey morning in Panaji. The sun is slowly creeping up, lighting up a cloudless sky. Life is even quieter than usual. Suddenly, there’s a honk. And then another. And another, like a noisy string of Morse, administered by a rubber horn, followed by the distinct sound of gravel crunching under cycle tyres. The paowallah turns the corner and appears at the head of the residential lane, tooting the horn rhythmically to announce his arrival. A giant basket, secured at the back of the cycle and tightly covered in plastic, carries the morning’s first batch of fresh, warm, locally made bread.
Rajan, the paowallah (who is known only by one name), stocks up at a nameless medium-sized bakery in Taleigão in Panaji before heading to Dona Paula, where he systematically works his way through the lanes of the upmarket locality. Some people respond to his inimitable honking, coming out and buying their daily stash of poee (as locally made bread is called in Konkani), while others, with standard orders, hang a bag or basket on their gates with the requisite change. At ₹ 3 for a single poee, this bread is a super-affordable indulgence, delivered warm and fresh at the door, twice a day, in most parts of Goa.
Like potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and cashew, the art of bread- making came to Goa with the Portuguese, who landed on the rice-eating west coast of India in the 16th century. They sorely missed mopping up their vindalho and sorpotel with good old crusty bread. Making it from scratch was the only way to go. Whole wheat was abundantly available, but finding yeast was near impossible. Then, some genius came upon the idea of using a drizzle of sura (toddy) as a leavening agent for the dough, and the Goan diet was never the same again.
Leavened bread loaves (as distinct from, say, naan, which also calls for leavened dough) would eventually find its way to other parts of the country but Goans made it their own and, having done so, are loath to change it again. Which probably explains why the bakeries continue to operate out of holes in the walls with coal- or wood-fired ovens (though, to be fair, they did abandon sura for yeast somewhere along the way).
“We have a traditional coal oven that takes one hour of heating before anything can be baked," says Gletta Mascarenhas, 36, who inherited her father-in-law Andrew’s bakery, which started business around the 1940s in Fontainhas, Panaji’s Latin quarter. “I would never get the kind of flavour this coal oven gives me in an electric oven."
Unlike many Goan bakeries, which don’t believe in signboards or even names, the Mascarenhas establishment is known as Confeitaria 31 de Janeiro. Stepping inside is like stepping back in time: The only concession to the passage of 80-odd years is the repertoire of baked goodies. Like many other bakeries that have diversified into cookies, tea cakes, puffs and pastries, and even wedding cakes, Mascarenhas’ makes buns (not the regular buns, but a sweet, yeasted, fried puri-like bread typical to Goa) and the Coconut Poli, a sweet dessert bread fortified with coconut, besides the staples of pao, poee and undo (read “Bread Basket").
“Once the oven is up to temperature, we begin with the patties, which require the most heat, and then move to cakes, breads and biscuits," says Gletta Mascarenhas, admitting that though sourcing coal is expensive and time-consuming—she often has to travel about 60km away to Sawantwadi for it—she is still far from warming up to the idea of an electric oven.
Traditionally, poders—as bakers skilled in bread-making are known locally—were mostly Christian, hailing from villages in south Goa, also known as Salcete. Legend has it that the Portuguese incorporated bread-baking as part of their missionary activities in the region and, for decades, baking and consuming bread was an aspirational habit contained within the upper classes of the Christian community. The alcohol-abstaining Hindus stayed away from bread—the toddy used in fermentation made it “impure"—even as their cooking shunned other Portuguese imports such as tomato, aubergine, radish and papaya, according to Goa’s culinary historian, Fatima de Silva Gracias.
Though bread is no longer the exclusive preserve of Christians, the pride and sense of heritage associated with the staple—traditional poders are known to hand down tricks of the trade, recipes and proportions for generations—baking is still considered an exciting profession. Gletta Mascarenhas, for instance, is a graduate from the Institute of Hotel Management, Goa. She marries her contemporary skills with the experience and expertise of generations before her.
Samantha Nunes, 27, pastry chef at the Goa Marriott Resort and Spa, grew up in a home where baking cakes, cookies, festive goodies and other confectionaries was common. As for bread, it was much easier to wait for the good stuff that was delivered by the poders. On occasions when her family missed the morning delivery, Nunes recalls visiting her neighbourhood bakery and being mesmerized by the size and scale of production, notwithstanding the simple wood-fired ovens they used. “These bakeries are usually very secretive about their recipes, because they were family run and they tried to keep it all within the family," she says. “They’re slowly dying out, though, because they are expensive to run and the government has no subsidies for the sector."
Incidentally, in 2013, the state government under Manohar Parrikar had announced and even approved the Goa Traditional Bakers (Poder) Subsidy Scheme, offering Goa-born poders with businesses at least 20 years old subsidies up to ₹ 4 for 50kg of maida, the flour that is the basic ingredient of the pao. In January this year, the All Goa Bakers’ Association was informed there were no funds to implement the scheme.
Notwithstanding the official apathy, Mascarenhas, and many like her, are determined to keep the business within the family. As long as the recipe for good bread continues to be guarded with the zealousness usually reserved for heirloom jewellery, this bit of Goa’s Portuguese legacy isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.
All week long, traditional village bakeries produce up to five varieties of bread that travel to their consumers through an intricate network of ‘paowallahs’
Pao: Soft and fluffy bread that comes in fused batches of eight that can be torn into single cubed loaves. Also called laadi-pao in Maharashtra, this is golden and shiny on top and fluffy inside, and goes well with curries and vegetables.
Undo: Round and ultra crusty, this bread is almost hard on the outside, but chewy and soft on the inside. A distinct grainy crumb and tough exterior makes this quite similar to Italian ciabatta.
Poee or polie: Flat breads with a hollow pocket-like cavity in the centre. Dusted with bran and supposedly made with a higher percentage of wholewheat flour, it is not as fluffy and soft as pao, but is great with curries.
Katricho pao: Called so because these individual boules have the tops slit by a pair of scissors, called katri in Konkani.
Kankon: Rings of crusty bread similar in texture and grain to pretzels, called so because of their resemblance to bangles, also called kankon in Konkani. This is a perfect teatime bread.