Breaking bread

Anuradha Sengupta | Updated on March 10, 2018

Say it with flour: Pois — also known as poli — are like pita pockets, dusted with bran Photo: Anuradha Sengupta

Rolling out tradition: Monica D’Silva of St Rita, a family-run bakery in north Goa, with her grandchildren Photo: Anuradha Sengupta

Hot off the oven: Picking up the day’s supply at a bread market. Photo: Anuradha Sengupta

If food is religion in Goa, then it starts with paos, pois and kakons from family-run bakeries

Monica D’Silva dusts a speck of flour from her floral-print dress as she briskly rolls out rounds of bread. Her husband, Jose, is standing on one foot on a makeshift stool, dusting the rounds with wheat bran and transferring them to trays (30 on each). They are then left to rise on cloth-lined shelves.

The atmosphere is medieval — like I am in an episode of Game of Thrones. A tub of bubbly, glutinous dough leavens in another room. In a room at the back, a man in a blue t-shirt is spreading out a big mass of dough. He rolls, kneads and stretches it repeatedly, till it forms a long, glistening strip. After spreading some fat on it, he folds it over in layers, sprinkling each with some iced water. The folded dough is kept on a muslin cloth. The process is repeated with another batch. Soon the muslin is piled with several layers of folded dough, which look somewhat like the white linen sheets in well-maintained hotels. These will be made into khari biscuits. Nearby, another team is rolling out hot-dog sizes of dough, lining them on small metal trays, and covering them with a linen cloth for the final rise before they go into the oven.

It is close to three on a summer afternoon in Aldona, a sleepy village in north Goa. I am at St Rita, the only remaining bakery with a traditional earthen oven in the area. It dates back to 1964 — the D’Silvas have maintained the rite that was a part of their childhood and the lives of generations of Goans before them.

Goa is one of the few states in India where bread plays a central part in a meal. For most Goans, a meal is not a meal without bread, preferably fresh bread. In fact, poi can be a meal in itself, with fresh salad vegetables, proteins, and squares of the Kodai cheese (found in stores everywhere). One can live by bread alone here, there’s so much variety. There’s the soft and chewy pao, the crisp undo, katre pao (scissored bread), kakon (bangle-shaped) and my favourite, the poi or poli (with hollow pockets like pita, dusted with bran).

Breadmaking was introduced in Goa by the Portuguese ( pao is the Portuguese word for bread). Traditionally, poders — as those skilled in breadmaking were known — were mainly from the Catholic community from the villages in south Goa. In the past, every village had its bakery, or bakeries. Baking was a family tradition, with the skills and recipes handed down through generations. Today, many bakeries are facing closure due to social and economic changes like the lack of skilled labour and a largely uninterested younger generation.

“Very few people want to join the trade. Working next to a hot oven, long hours are not exactly selling points,” says Saby Andrade, who operates the oven at St Rita. Andrade’s eyesight has been damaged due to the near-constant exposure to high heat.

Low profit margins from the bread business is the other concern ( paos and pois sell at ₹3-3.50). “Confectioneries give better returns,” says Jose. Goan bakers have been asking for a price hike to make up for the cost, but the government is yet to respond.

To make things a little more complicated, Goans, according to many like the D’Silvas, are eating less bread. The bakeries that remain are in competition with supermarkets and chains like Monginis. The bakers are trying everything to keep the breadmaking heritage alive. Last October, a festival celebrating poders was held at the village of Succoro. The Poderanchem Fest was like a breadmakers’ carnival with food stalls, breadmaking demos, and floats. The event had 600 volunteers.

Some contemporary chefs and pioneers are trying to integrate newer trends and flavours into the Goan bread. Like Prahlad Sukhtankar of Panjim’s new-agey Black Sheep Bistro (or BSB to its regulars), who uses local breads to great effect in the menu. I had a divine meal of chorizo- pao and garlicky, olive-oil drizzled poi with a beetroot salad at BSB. Chef and owner Sukhtankar said he gets the bread from a nearby bakery, similar to St Rita and with a wood-fired oven. The chorizo- pao was served on toasted hunks of homemade wholewheat poi.

It reminded me of the various encounters with pois and paos I have had over the years. I had spent a year in Goa working on an AIDS awareness project. My memories of this stint are punctuated by culinary experiences — of vindaloo and sorpotel, of xacuti and cafreal, and of crusty, chewy warm breads.

My favourite was the poi: pita-like wholewheat circles which I’d stuff with cucumber, tomatoes, herbs, and crumbly cheese. These pockets were wholesome and convenient snacks for busy days in the field, interviewing locals about their sex life.

I even came across a Konkani play in Panjim which was based on the life of a poder, interwoven with a mystery. The Breadman Came Calling featured Bostiao Mendonsa, a town baker, and a local lass who pokes around and solves the mystery.

Mapusa market has a space inside for just bread. You can smell it from a mile away. When I visited it on a weekend morning, it was bustling with customers. Bond Braganza, secretary of the All Goa Bakers Association (a partner in the Succoro festival), showed me around. Goa has about 3,000-odd small-scale bakeries, he said. These are mostly family-run units that are generations-old.

Braganza says that the younger generation is opting out of the profession and many bakers have been forced to lease the business to outsiders.

‘I’m a Barbie girl, in my Barbie world…’

Meanwhile, in St Rita, a beat-up music system is belting out the ’90s hit, to pump some energy into the lethargy of the afternoon. Some of the workers are feeling the heat now and nodding drowsily. The breads are almost ready to be put into the oven

The afternoon shift starts at one o’clock and stretches till about 6pm. The night batch for the early morning bread will begin at 10 pm and continue till 3 am. The poi goes in first, as it needs the most heat and also gets baked quickly; the round pao takes about eight minutes, the katre pao about five, and the kakons 15 minutes.

The breads are taken out and placed two at a time on the long-handled metal spatula that Andrade is using. He makes a sign of the cross before putting in the first batch, his eyes squinting in the heat. With broad, rhythmic motions, he shoves the bread into the oven, arranging them in precise rows. After a couple of minutes, he pulls them out into a straw basket and refills the oven with the next batch. From the basket, the breads are stacked in rows, and left to cool on stone benches spread with golden wheat dust.

With an impatient click of his tongue, Andrade takes out a few pois that are burnt on the top. “Who put too much maida? Raise your hand?” he shouts across the room. The workers look at each other, laugh a bit, but continue their work without missing a beat. St Rita churns out 1,500 pois every day. There’s enough demand to support a local neighbourhood bakery like this.

In a couple of hours, the breads will be delivered across the neighbourhood on bicycles mounted with baskets covered in blue tarp. These delivery boys cycle to every house at dawn and dusk. The sound of the cycle’s rubber horn is a reliable morning alarm for many.

Meanwhile, Andrade hands me a warm poi. “It should be mildly sour, and airy,” says Monica. “You should taste the grains.”

It is redolent with the aroma of freshly-baked wheat laced with toddy. The reason the bread is so good, she says, is that it is made of the simple ingredients — good flour, water, a bit of yeast and some salt. And the ovens play their part. “Our oven takes hours of heating before bread can be baked. You will not get this kind of flavour from an electric oven. I grew up with this bread. This is a staple in our lives.”

Anuradha Sengupta is a writer and editor based in Kolkata

Published on September 02, 2016

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