In el Centro de Morelia, in the Calle Abasolo, not far above La Frontera and but below Fonda Marceva, there's a tiny shop where bread is sold. A glass and metal framed bread case half blocks the doorway, and you must sidle past to enter. Inside, you can buy bolillos and a few other bakery goods, but mostly bolillos; Mexican "hard" rolls. The Abasolo store is the last stand of the bolillo brothers and they are they last of their family to bake in the traditional way.
|Fancy cuernos await the oven. Baking sheets made from metal oil cans.|
|Alberto waiting for customers|
|Alberto, left; Benjamín, right.|
|La calle del barrio|
These are true artisanal breads, made by hand (the only machinery used is a mixer-kneader), without chemical accelerators or so-called "improvers". The process is slow and deliberate: from mixing and kneading, then fermentation in a wooden trough (also "artesa" said Benjamín); then dividing and shaping hundreds of pieces by hand. All over many hours, in the cool, dimly lit bodega.
|Benjamín and the fermenting trough|
|Ranks of rising rolls|
|Swaddled bolillos rising|
The oven can be heated with leña (firewood) or by a gas torch. The leña makes better bread, said Benjamín, but the gas is quicker and cleaner in use.
|Inside view of oven|
They began by heating the domed interior of el horno with a gas torch. This took a while to bring the temperature up enough for baking. (Of course, the brothers use neither thermometer nor timer in their work.)
Alberto then took a large can which he filled with water, then used the very long pala (baker's peel or paddle, in this case, about 10 feet long and about 6 inches wide) to place it deep in the interior. Next, he wet a mop on a equally long pole and swabbed the oven deck to remove any ashes.
|Hermanos al horno|
While the oven filled with steam, they took a short break and chatted with me. I learned that sales had declined, partly due to the higher cost of these bolillos, as mass produced, cheaper bread appealed to more people, even though that lacks the special qualities of the brothers' bolillos.
They were the last of their family to practice the craft, because the younger generation was uninterested in working the long hours in the middle of the night.
Benjamín told me that although, at 77 years, he wasn't as sprightly as he used to be, he could still do the work. He held up his hands to show that they were still straight, not chuecos, or crooked.
I asked him when he slept. He said that he got about four hours of sleep in twenty four, but those were good, pure, uninterrupted hours of sleep. He went on to say that when he was younger, he used to work 18 hours, all the time on his feet, but he was unable to do that now.
Now the oven was heated and steam filled the dome.
Benjamín set up a few props to support the very long pala and another prop to hold the proofing boards, and the baking began. He lifted and inverted each unbaked bolillo from the folds of the manta to a small, transfer peel, moving the bolillos in pairs to the oven peel.
Meanwhile, Alberto had opened a bag of milk and poured it into a small pet dish. I wondered, "Where is the cat?" But there is no cat. To my surprise, Alberto took a small cloth and applied milk to each bolillo. This was another small detail that enhanced the browning of the crust.
|Alberto applying milk to the bolillos|
I was a bit puzzled that neither Benjamín or Alberto slashed the top of each bolillo with a razor or knife. How did they get that beautiful split along the side of the top? The secret was later revealed in full when Alberto took some leftover dough and demonstrated the shaping of a bolillo. Just enough "hoja" , a leaf, or a lip, is left in the forming so that when the raw dough piece is turned upside down on the peel, the oven heat and the steam causes it to split open without the extra step of a cut. This also avoids the risk of deflation. A touch of genius, but one requiring a deft and practiced touch.
|Three steps of forming a bolillo|
This continued steadily and unhurriedly over the next 45 to 60 minutes. I was amazed that out of approximately 300 bolillos*, only 2 ever fell off the pala during the loading.
Soon after the last bolillos were introduced into the oven, the first ones were coming out. I'd expected that Benjamín would use a broader pala to extract the finished bolillos, but I realized that as the oven was loaded with bolillos in various stages of doneness, the same, long and narrow peel (about 6 inches wide by 12 feet long) as before was more precise and necessary in order to reach only the fully baked rolls.
|Bolillos, recien salidos del horno|
|Hot and crisp crust|
|Steaming hot and light inside|
**I'm not sure this is the correct name for thse broad, round, sombrero like baskets, but it will do.)
Before long, many more rolls were pulled from the oven and deposited in a basket, then moved to a plastic crate, preparing to transport them to the expendio on Calle Abasolo.
The oven having cooled somewhat, Benjamín then loaded the fancy cuernos. But it was time for me to leave.
|Benjamín loads the cuernos|
I thanked them for their time and for allowing me to observe and photograph. I also bought another 5 hot bolillos to take to our hostesses at Casona Rosa.
If you love well made, crusty brown rolls, (possibly the best in Morelia) I recommend "Panadería La Tradicional" on Calle Abasolo, Centro, Morelia. Just look for the "Bolillos 4 pesos" sign just outside the small shop. It opens at about 8:30 a.m. and is open until supplies run out. You can also buy them at the baking facility, at Calle Leona Vicario #573, Colonia Ventura Puente, Morelia. It's definitely off the tourist track. You are more likely to find bread at the Abasolo store.