(From the My Mexican Kitchen archives of 2006.)
MORELIA, Michoacán, México — In a working-class, commercial colonia of Morelia, México, the bakery artisans of the Horno de Los Ortiz would seem to have fairy tale ovens. Great lumps of dough are transformed daily into edible fantasies. Apples are lovingly prepared and wrapped in puff pastry, and sweet dough is filled and made into gargantuan bear claws. To the delight of children and their parents, pastry mice line up in ranks in the shop windows, later to be boxed in their “Swiss cheese wedge” cartons. The shop windows are fairytale scenes, with the mice scurrying amidst woodland shelf fungi, all crafted from bread dough. Inside the showroom, there are Brobdingnagian “guangoches,” rustic “seed sacks” of Danish pastry tied with binder twine and filled with a rich blend of sweetened cheeses, fresh apple slices and apple marmalade.
But it is at the holiday times that the Familia Los Ortiz truly realizes its craft. The spacious and lofty hall of the bakery building helps to liberate the creative minds and adept hands of the Ortizes, unconfined by convention, yet still guided by tradition. They are listening to selected music as they work, as they always do. Hugo Ortiz says that instead of timers, the bakers sing songs to calculate the baking time. At the approach of El Día de Los Muertos, they design and cut murals of papel picado in themes of dancing calacas y Catrinas. Mexican Día de los Muertos tradition celebrates the return of the spirits of loved ones; but here it is done on a scale bigger than Death. The specialty is the “Pan de Muertos,” a round, sweet bread with subtle aromas of anise and orange and adorned with ropes of dough to resemble a skull with crossed bones.
La Reina de las Roscas
At the advent of La Navidad, the area in front of the massive dome of the horno de leña (wood-fired oven) is the stage for the elaborate nacimiento, or nativity scene. Hundreds of figures populate the scene, again, exquisitely hand made from bread dough.
When we first arrived at the bakery, on the last day of 2006, the bakers were busy producing Roscas de Reyes, the traditional Three Kings' Cakes served as the finale of the Christmas festivities. We had seen other roscas before, but these were dazzling. Judith Martínez, la dueña of the bakery, and her helper deftly cut the preserved fruits, whole figs and candied fruit peels into flowers and clusters of grapes that cover the entire surface of these very special cakes. These are not the common roscas adorned with colored sugar and sweet pastes alone. The popular rings of yeast-raised sweet dough of course have the traditional muñecos, or doll babies nestled inside, representing the infant Jesus.
Judith, the articulate spokeswoman for the business, explained that earlier bakeries were often dark, dirty, poorly ventilated, cellar workplaces. In fact, los conquistadores in Nueva España impressed prisoners to work in these dreary places as a special punishment. The Ortizes determined from the beginning that the working conditions in their taller would be the opposite. The origins of the panadería Horno Los Ortiz is rooted in three generations of panaderos, but it was only in 1989 that Sr. Hugo Ortiz and his wife, Judith, made their creative vision a reality. They first rented a small location in a gritty colonia on Morelia's south side. Two years of hard work and meager sales were their lot. They took their products to the street to give samples to passersby, who were not used to the Ortizes' generous style of baking. It was difficult for neighborhood clientele to accustom their shopping habits to purchasing bread in the day, instead of early morning. The Ortizes made large units of pan dulces rather than the smaller, more common ones. Hugo Ortiz told us that the larger pieces keep better, but are more expensive.
Today there is nothing corriente or ordinary in Horno Los Ortiz. All the breads are made from their own well-memorized recipes and baked daily. Gradually, as their local custom grew, a reputation for fine baking followed. Within two years, they were able to develop their dream of a large, airy, well-lit and artistic space. An architect friend worked with them to draw up the plans to fit their aesthetic concepts. They have woven the varied strands of bakery artesanía, music and tradition into a new experience for their clientele and for their workers. It isn't, of course, a dream without much hard work. The small, charming apartment they added above the shop is really a place for short rests in the busiest months, November through January.
For many years the Ortizes displayed their attractive products on plain, functional wooden tables. Within the last two years, they were able to remodel the interior into a more aesthetically pleasing space. The displays and customer service desk are made of handsome woods, ironwork and tile that complement the bakery products.
Hugo was born into a family of third generation bakers in Ciudad Hidalgo, in eastern Michoacán, not far from the famed Santuarios de Las Mariposas Monarcas. Judith comes from a family of La Tierra Caliente farmers who baked at home. Their food preparations were based on an economy of scarcity. They did without refrigeration, electricity and piped-in water. The daily food preparation employed many methods of preserving foods. Containers in which to hang cheeses were made of woven bamboo strips. From her childhood, Judith worked to satisfy her curiosity of the harvesting, preparation and preservation of foods by natural means. The couple’s desire to keep to the natural processes learned in childhood is part of what drives the Ortizes’ métier today. You won't find the magnificent Roscas de Reyes available on the shelves for immediate purchase. They must be ordered in advance of your holiday fiestas. Judith and her staff make no extras for walk-in sales. This past Christmas season, the large, richly adorned rings sold for $220 MN each. (About $20 USD each).
For the occasion of the bakery’s 20th anniversary, the Ortizes commissioned an audio CD with 11 tracks of original songs by noted local and international artists. It is packaged in a handsome slipcover with a booklet explaining the songs and a brief history of the Horno Los Ortiz dream. Hugo modestly describes their work as “artesanía,” not “art.” He tried to find the words to explain the distinction. “Art ... is ... something greater,” he said. I don't know if either of us can separate the two. At la Panadería Horno Los Ortiz, they are indistinguishable.
Go to the Panadería Horno de Los Ortiz in the late afternoon, when the shelves are being loaded with still-warm goods from the ovens. Besides the Alice-in-Wonderland menagerie of pastry mice, lagartitos or pastry lizards, and coiled snakes, you will be enticed by rich cinnamon rolls the size of salad plates. You will also be tempted by a large selection of fruit-filled coffee cakes, giant bear claws and the more traditional conchas and molletes. But here are the coveted baked apples wrapped in hojaldre. They are simple but delicious and irresistible to the customers who crowd the store late in the day, vying for the remaining manzanas.
Location and Contact information:
El Horno Los Ortiz (matriz)
Avenida Vicente Santamaría 1077
Colonia Ventura Puente
Morelia, Michoacán, México
Tel: (433) 312-3317
Hours: 12 noon to 11 PM daily, 365 days a year.
El Horno Los Ortiz (sucursal)
Calzada Madero 1196,
Centro Histórico, Morelia, Michoacán, México
If you are staying in the Historic Center, or perhaps at one of the fine hotels on the Santa María ridge, I suggest taking a taxi, particularly at night.
There's a more recent and very well done blog on this topic by Deb Hall at Zocalo de Mexico Folk Art, with emphasis on Día de los Muertos at Horno Los Ortiz. That inspired me to publish this.
Photos from 2004
Photos by Geni Certain. Click to see larger.
Music of the Spheres by Music of the Spheres