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A tasty trail of breadcrumbs through time

The Goan bread is a testament to its Portuguese past and its culinary present

Firstpost print Edition

To understand Goa’s Portuguese heritage, one must break its bread. Those beautifully risen artisanal roundels are at the core of each Goan meal. Whether it is baker Alzira, who wakes at the crack of dawn, gets her hands deep into dough, kneading it incessantly, resting it, again and again, till it’s risen, or the DeSilva household, that awaits the poder (breadman) early morning and evening to buy the bread of the day, which is dunked into xacuti or vindaloo, or stuffed with cutlet or chorizo – Goan breads are synonymous with life and etched in every local’s psyche.

Bred by the Portuguese

History is also testament to this centuries-old ubiquitous legacy. The humble art of breadmaking lives on in the soft leavened freshly baked wonders since the 1500s. If the French influence gave Saigon its own basketful of banh mi, the Goan family has the Portuguese to thank for its daily bread. They left indelible footprints with the plebeian poie (wheat bread) or poxe, pao and unde which found pride of place in every Goan kitchen. The maida-made katre (konchehe or butterfly bread) and pretzel-like kankon, or, on special occasions, a sweet panke and coconutty bol are all as relevant today. The Portuguese taught locals breadmaking for want of a crustier hard bread, and today innumerable lone poders (from the Portuguese word for baker – padeiro) cycle through villages, ringing their bells to sell freshly baked bread. This rich inheritance and time-worn legacy lives on with the dogged efforts of the tireless poders. On the breadmaking tradition, celebrity Goan chef Avinash Martins of Cavatina says, “Portuguese Jesuit priests taught the locals as prior to that there were no fermentation techniques. The bread was made with toddy or sur (in Konkani).”

Through centuries, a dearth of artisans like toddy tappers and bakers saw the traditional bakery leased or shut, and the sur poie was replaced with a yeast one, and wheat with maida. The president of the All Goa Bakers and Confectioners Association, Peter De Lima’s Colva bakery, Da Lima Bakers and Confectioners, is among the few making 100% wheat poies, and also teaches breadmaking, as does Chef Martins. “There are at least 500 bakeries in Goa, and about 450 are run by non-Goans. We do make bread with toddy on special order as earlier a toddy bottle costed Rs 10-20, now it’s Rs 175-200,” explains De Lima, who gets orders from England, Australia, Dubai and Qatar, which he vacuum packs across the seven seas. “The government had given subsidies to bakers earlier but it was an extremely complex process. We have to do much more to save the traditional bakery.”

The oldest bakeries started in the Salcette region. A few still boast of woodfire ovens, yet many have modernised. Every Goan’s daily bread bounces softly in a blue-plastic covered basket as the poder pedals on his daily rounds. For some, he is an early morning wake-up call; for others, a meal time staple. As astounding as it is remarkable, Goan breadmaking has stood the tests of time. In an era where old is bequeathed to dust, the universality of Goan breads is a sign of the resilience of a rich heritage and the scarce artisans who labour on.

In recent years, many baking families have leased out or shut, throwing a shroud of uncertainty. Government aid, subsidy and protecting traditional bakeries is the need of the hour as profitability of breads sold between Rs 4- 10 is not high.

Alzira Gomes’s family has been baking bread in Ribandar since 1947. Her daughter Shaeen Gomes has seen her grandmother, mother and father deep in dough. Inspired, Shaeen is now working to save the invaluable heritage by empowering local housewives, thanks to her husband Armando Gonsalves’s vision. She will be training them with her initiative, Girl Power, and also chairs the Goa ForGiving Trust. “We are also working with the Goa University and Shalini Menezes on gathering information to register a Geographical Indicator certificate (similar to Goan Feni). I’ve started the hashtag #ProudToBePoder to change how people perceive bakers, as the term is used derogatorily,” says Shaeen.

The breads, they are a changing

To revive breadmaking, Martins and Da Lima are among many who have started classes. Panjim resident Alison Lobo has taught 612 novices to make traditional sur poie. A recipe given by her scientist father started her tryst when the poder stopped trudging up to her home on a hill in Dona Paula. “I bake with toddy. The bread is much healthier, softer and fresher,” Alison says.

Baking families follow a rotation in production so that everyone gets a chance to be a part of the breadmaking. “Once our four months are over, the other family steps in,” adds Shaeen, whose bakery sells 800-1,000 breads a day.

Another lesser-known bread, the poderancho (coconut flat sweet bread), Alison says, was made and distributed free when baker families changed cycles, “It was like a goodbye and good luck as the next family took over,” she adds.

Revive and restore

As a few new-generation bakers aspire to restore the glory of breadmaking, breathing life into history, filmmaker Sonia Filinto with her new documentary Pão brings the resilient poders into the limelight. “Breadmaking is intimately woven into Goa’s identity. Pão is about Goan breads and its bakers, focusing on small bakeries attached to homes – the no-name ones. It is a heritage trail symptomatic of changes in society. Goans are very proud of their bread and they are not making it any more,” she says. A precious chronicle of Goa’s Portuguese heritage, an extraordinary artisanal practice, and a tryst with history, Chef Martins mulls. “The tradition has persisted despite the battles, even though it is a thankless job,” he says. “No one compliments the beleaguered poder on how good the bread is.” Yes, it is a thankless endeavour. And it’s time to thank the humble poder, and his family – they are the only reason this tradition survives.

(Suruchi Kapur-Gomes is a senior editor who shuns clichés and seeks piquant and tangible stories of life as we know it)

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