Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Bolillo Brothers Last Stand

El Bolillo
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.
The bolillos sell for $4 pesos each, 50 centavos more than pan ordinario elsewhere. They are well worth the extra cost. You will also find a scattering of ornate traditional breads in the style of Zinepecúaro, but the bulk of the business is in the bolillos. The bakery is nameless, but I call it "Panadería La Tradicional".

Alberto waiting for customers
The expendio de pan is presided over by Sr. Alberto García, younger of two brothers who produce and sell pan tradicional. His older brother, Sr. Benjamín García, 77 years of age, is the Maestro Panadero who every day makes bolillos with Alberto's help in a cavernous bodega in Colonia Ventura Puente. They are the last, remaining panaderos of their family since their father died, at the age of 109. "He fell down twice and died. That was it." explained Benjamín.

Alberto, left; Benjamín, right.
I recently was privileged to be welcomed by the brothers and spent about two hours observing the baking. I'd been invited to see the other steps leading up to the baking, but I would have had to arrive at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. The early hour didn't daunt me, but I hesitated to be out on the street in the barrio at that time.

La calle del barrio
What makes the breads of the bolillo brothers special?

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
Then comes a lengthy repose under well used mantas or proofing cloths, on long boards hung on wall brackets. This all before the oven is fired and prepared to receive the breads. The wonderful crackling crust, browned bottoms and light internal crumb are achieved through the combination of long slow rising and baking directly on the deck of the domed oven. Most of all, the excellent qualities come from the 59 years of experience that Sr. Benjamín Garcia brings to his craft, assisted by Alberto, his younger brother.

Ranks of rising rolls
Swaddled bolillos rising
I asked  them if they set aside a portion of dough each day to add to the next day's mix, and I think I heard, "sí". This is a sort of starter that helps develop structure as well as flavor in the breads.

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
When I arrived, a little after 7:00 a.m., the baking room was cool and the brothers went about their routine in a calm and practiced way. (Quite a contrast to the intense, high pressure environment of the American bakeries where I have worked.)

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
Benjamin neatly tore old advertising flyers into rectangular sheets, mixed a bit of flour and water, and pasted the paper against the edges of the oven opening to keep the steam inside.

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
When eight or 10 bolillos were aligned along the very narrow  pala, the small door was pulled aside and the peel inserted deep into the oven, With a swift and sure backstroke, Benjamín withdrew the peel, the breads remaining inside.

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
Soon the first bolillos were taken out and dropped into a woven canasta panadera** on the floor. Benjamín offered me one, hot, well browned and crisp crusted. When it cooled enough to handle, I broke it open with my hands and held it up to my nose. The aroma was subtle but enticing. Nothing was needed to add to the sheer pleasure of eating a bolillo fresh from the oven.

Hot and crisp crust

Steaming hot and light inside

*A wild guess on my part.
**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.


Steve Cotton said...

I am not a fan of Mexican breads. But thank you for the essay. I may give them a try on my next trip to the highlands.

DonCuevas said...

Steve, I am ambiguous about Mexican breads. Too many pan dulces look interesting but taste the same and are often dry. But there are exceptions. Perhaps you need more exposure to the better breads and bakeries in Mexico. I can list a few, but not here.

Panaderia La Tradicional mainly makes the unsweet bolillo. As a native Noo Yawker, I'm a big fan of crisp crusted hard rolls and their brethren. These come close to what I remember as a child in Brooklyn.

Don Cuevas

Andean said...

I too am a "fan of the crisp crusted hard rolls" and maybe for the same reason.

Steve- I recently heard that in the Cihuatlan market, on the way to the Manzanillo airport, they have crispy bolillo's.

Jeanine Ligon said...

Makes my mouth water. I spent my adolescent years in the '60's in Nicaragua, and the maid would go to the corner bodega and buy fresh baked rolls, sweet butter and a type of cheese called 'cuajada' and this with cafe con leche and refried beans was my breakfast before going to school. Incredible hot fresh breads and th butter was also freshly churned. There was a wonderful smell to all this freshly created food that you can't find anywhere here. Makes my mouth water. Yum. Hopefully, I will be able to enjooy these 'bolillos' someday as I plan to move to Moreliia in the next two years. Muchisimas Gracias Jeanine

DonCuevas said...

Welcome, Jeanine. Thanks for the memories. We hope to see you soon in Morelia.

Speaking of "cuajada", while I don't know it's the same cheese or not, I bought some excellent requesón in the Mercado Niño Santo, located about a 10 minute walk to the northwest of the expendio de pan. (Calle Nicolás Bravo at Calle Granaditas.) You'll also find some very interesting, handmade pan de leña at the front of the mercado, much denser than that of the García brothers.

Don Cuevas

Nora said...

Don, I loved your excelent narrative article, very interesting. What a shame that the young people do not want to learn to make bread like this. Me encantan tus crónicas de lugares y comida en fotografías. By the way, do not think you're "in the middle of nowhere" You are in the middle of everything! Hugs.

DonCuevas said...

Nora, eres muy amable, una persona muy especial. Gracias.

Don Cuevas

Croft said...

Thank you for the great story and photos. I too am a fan of good bolillos when I can find them. There is a panaderia in Villa Corona where you can watch the young baker using an oven much like the one you describe. My wife asked him to bake her some traditional loaves of bread, drawing pictures on his flour dusted work table. With a smile he indicated he understood what she wanted but when we showed up at 8:00 AM were large, flat loaves of sweet tasting bread.

We did find good, traditionally shaped brown bread in the bakery at the Mega in Cuervavaca and of course always at "The Canadian Bakery" in SMA.

Kim G said...

Very interesting post. I bake my own bread, and thus am quite interested in how it's done elsewhere.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where it's a good time of year to be baking.

alma said...

Me vieras de mandar la receta Para hacer unos porfavor

DonCuevas said...

No la tengo. Es un proceso retado y complicado.

Don Cuevas

alma said...

Entonces Como los preparo Si dice que no tiene la receta. Dice que es de michoacan, yo tambien soy de michoacan de que parte es usted.