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Breads of our life

In the short story “The Bread of Salt” by NVM Gonzalez, a boy walks to a neighborhood bakery to buy  pan  de  sal  (the bread in the title) for his grandmother. The baker places the warm buns in a paper bag and the boy walks home, clutching the warm brown bag to his chest.

That is all I remember of the story, actually, but the opening scene triggered in me memories of the brown paper bag of  pan  de  sal  that usually sat in the center of our dining table for breakfast. As soon as I descended the stairs to start the day, I would take the warm buns and dunk them in warm milk or, as I grew into adulthood, hot coffee. Sometimes, I would slather some butter on the bun, and it would give me a thrill to watch the butter melt into the coffee, filling the liquid with globs of yellow fat.

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Filipinos are a rice-eating people, and no meal is complete, it seems, without hot rice to offset the salty, spicy, sweet or rich-tasting viands in our menus. I remember my mother complaining once about visiting a relative around lunch time and being served sandwiches. “Sandwiches!” she exclaimed, “I left their house with my hunger barely assuaged!”

But despite our desperate affinity with rice, bread still occupies an important place in the Filipino diet. Most commonly, this is during breakfast, with the iconic  pan  de  sal  or “slice” white bread (also known as  pan  Americano) from commercial bakers. Sometimes, we also make room for bread during morning or afternoon snacks, including the traditional  ensaymada  or Spanish roll, the butter or margarine-filled “Hispanis” bread, or any number of biscuits, cakes and buns.

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IN RECENT years, the hubby would often come home from an out-of-town sortie or photo assignment with bags or boxes filled with all sorts of bread and bakery products. The breads were giveaways from bakery owners whom he had photographed for a book called “Panaderia,” the native term for bakery. To be launched in the coming week or so, “Panaderia” is subtitled “Philippine Bread, Biscuits and Bakery Traditions.” It is an encyclopedic, or nearly encyclopedic, volume on the history, background, traditions and innovations of Filipino bakers.

Authors Amy Uy and Jenny Orillos, with editor Mickey Fenix, fill our minds and bellies with exhaustively researched and yet deeply personalized articles on the beginnings of bread and pastries here, chock-full with interviews with the Philippines’ top bakers and features on established bakeries. An extra feature are recipes developed and tested by Jill Sandique, no mean baker herself, who brought the book team to her native Kidapawan in Cotabato where her family owns a bakery and plantation.

And of course, Pie David provided the photos, a veritable labor of love which involved, according to Uy in her foreword: “gamely jump(ing) on planes, boats, buses, and traysikadswith us across the country to capture the making of these breads in soulful images.” Book designer Ige Ramos took charge of the book’s cover and inside pages, including a logo of various baking tools sprouting from a rolling pin.

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IT’S ironic indeed to have a flourishing baking industry in a country that grows no wheat, despite the efforts of early Spanish colonizers to propagate the crop in our tropical isles.

But wheat flour was considered essential, not just because the colonizers considered bread a staple in their diets, but also because the natives newly converted to Christianity needed communion wafers to ingest during the Mass. Thus it was that, according to Uy and Orillos, the Spanish established in 1625 the Royal Bakeshop in Manila. This bakery, whose profits were divided between the city government and the lot owner, was a virtual monopoly, cornering the importation of wheat flour as well as the construction of brick and clay ovens, allegedly for safety purposes. And while the first bakers supervising the Royal Bakeshop’s operations were Spaniards, management eventually fell on skilled Chinese or Sangley (native-born Chinese) bakers.

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Eventually,  panaderia  operations expanded beyond government control. Bakeries sprouted in Manila and then spread to other provinces. The American era saw the arrival of home appliances and baking supplies that made it possible for home bakers to add their own touches and innovations, enriching the repertoire of native baking traditions. And in time, these home bakers would themselves become commercial bakers, popularizing their specialties or, in some cases, keeping their heirloom recipes so close to their chests that their products, so beloved to their customers, passed on with them.

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EVEN if our baking traditions are mostly transplanted, born of the need of colonizers to maintain their ties to the bread from home, we nonetheless have “colonized” in turn the breads we borrowed.

Among the breads which I think can be found only in the Philippines are “kababayan” or countryman, a muffin made from inferior flour that is shaped like a native hat which, so a friend once told me, was so named as a tribute to Katipuneros who went around wearing the wide-brimmed head gear.

Then there is the “kalihim,” the native word for secretary, which is a combination of old mashed bread dyed a deep red and sandwiched into a newly-baked roll. I don’t know how it got its name, but another nickname for it is “lipstick bread,” which perhaps alludes to the red-lipsticked office secretaries? Another name for the bread is “pan de regla” a naughty reference perhaps to a woman’s “time of the month,” though it seems a rather unappetizing marketing tool.

So there you have it. Philippine breads may not be “native” to us, but we have made them our own, part of our memories and traditions, and even imbued with our unique Pinoy humor.

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TAGS: “The Bread of Salt”, Amy Uy and Jenny Orillos, bakery, Bread, Filipino diet, Ige Ramos, Mickey Fenix, NVM Gonzalez, pan de sal, Panaderia, rice, Sandwiches
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