If I were to choose a place in India for spending my retirement years, it would probably be a small village in South Goa. I would have mentioned a quaint village in the Konkan out of respect for my lineage, but I don’t think I would get bread there, unless I built an oven in the backyard and baked it myself – an idea that might not exactly be practical if I were severely arthritic by then, a possibility I don’t entirely discount.
Everything else fits – the laid-back lifestyle, the tropical climate, the abundance of indigenous natural produce and, most importantly, no specific purpose for the day. But Goa has bread, fresh bread that does not come in plastic bags. In every single locality of every single village or town, there is a bakery that churns out a variety of Portuguese-inspired bread in at least two batches every single day.
Although Goan cuisine derives its carbohydrate component primarily from rice, wheat is used in the production of a wide variety of breads – an unmistakable Portuguese influence. The Jesuit priests first introduced leavened bread to Goa and equipped the poder (a Goan baker – a derivative of the Portuguese padeiro) with a skill that would give several generations of his family a means of sustenance.
The first Goan pao were legendary in that they were made using local toddy as a source of natural yeast; this gave the bread a distinctive character that is quite impossible to replicate with any other kind of yeast.
The last few bakeries that use toddy to leaven their bread are struggling to keep the tradition alive, while most have succumbed to the use, and more predictable uniformity, of commercial yeast. Toddy itself is hard to find now and fresh yeast is easier to procure and more stable.
Having scooped up every morsel of those local Goan curries with sponges of delicious Goan bread on every trip to Goa in my adult life, I had developed a special respect for the craft of making that bread. I wanted to explore its intricacies. Finally, on my last leisurely trip to Goa, I convinced the hotel’s executive chef to introduce me to the local poder who supplied his poee twice a day. He agreed quite readily.
So one afternoon, armed with a camera, a brother to man it and lots of questions to shoot off, I accompanied the chef in his important-looking whites to a simple, seemingly residential middle-class neighbourhood a mere fifteen minutes away. I was beginning to wonder if anything even remotely resembling a bakery would ever appear on the horizon, when my senses were suddenly assailed by the smell of burnt coconut husks that could only have fired an oven that very morning. We turned into the courtyard of a brick house with a few bicycles parked outside. On their carriers sat oversized wicker baskets covered with blue tarpaulin.
A shy, emaciated gentleman with an open smile appeared at the dark doorway to the house. Watching the goings-on from a window, an expression of enquiry on her face, was a woman clad in a dress with large floral prints that hugged her snugly around her ample hips. The chef introduced the gentleman to us as Mr Pinto, the bakery’s owner.
Mr Pinto was clearly as uncomfortable with the idea of us exploring his bakery as he was thrilled.
At this point, the chef had to return to the hotel for dinner prep. Trying to communicate in English and Konkani-fied Marathi, while attempting to project the sincerity of our intentions through a convincingly friendly manner, we hoped that we had succeeded in explaining to Mr Pinto that we were there to shoot his bakery simply for the purpose of documenting the dying art of poee-making. It seemed we had, for he ducked his head in an awkward nod and beckoned us inside.
We entered a large, rectangular room painted a green that had blackened with age and exposure to heat. A young boy, about seventeen or eighteen years old, stood at one end of the room, cleaning the simple marble counter with a metal scraper. At the opposite end was a large, wood-fired oven, currently dormant. A tiny window-like opening offered access to its deep belly. A naked light bulb dangled at the window, illuminating the oven’s tiled floor, now strewn with ashes from the early-morning bake.
Empty, floury jute sacks were neatly stacked in one corner. Another small room, whose interiors were barely hidden by a flimsy curtain, revealed itself to be the storeroom, where bags of flour and miscellaneous plastic mugs and tubs stood awaiting their turn. A makeshift wooden mezzanine had been constructed along the storeroom’s length; here, a transistor and a couple of threadbare tee shirts lay in an untidy mess. This was where Divakar, the young apprentice baker, lived.
Suddenly, Mrs Pinto shrieked to Divakar to drop whatever he was busy with and go fetch something. I got the sense that she was the operations manager. In moments, the lad had returned and thrust cold bottles of orange soda into our hands, his eyes beaming as brightly as the neon pink plastic straws bobbing in the drink. A few polite sips later, a kind of gradual activity got under way.
Bags of flour were weighed out. Mounds of it were emptied on the freshly cleaned marble counter. Salt was added by the measured fistful. A brick of fresh yeast, still cold from refrigeration, was removed after tearing open its soggy paper packaging and almost half of it crumbled into a basin of water.
At this point, Mr Pinto stepped out, leaving Divakar in charge. Before he left, he said something to him in Konkani and flashed us an awkward, toothy smile. I asked Divakar what flour he was using, how many pao and poee he made in a day and other questions that a bread-obsessed baker would find glee in.
He answered them patiently in a Shimoga accent, explaining that he portioned out at least 200 trays of pao and 100-odd poee in every shift.
While kneading the huge quantity of dough in portions and tossing each portion to the side, he told us how he had come to Goa several years ago and been taken in by Mr Pinto, who taught him everything he now knew.
Although just a teenager when we met him, Divakar knew exactly how long the dough would take to rise in the humid June weather, when compared to the time it would take in cool, dry December. He explained to me that over-proofing would cause the dough to release “too much water” and ruin the texture and taste of the pao. In such hot weather, he could not afford to even think of going out with his friends for half-an-hour while the dough rose; in fact, by the time he finished kneading the last batch, the first batch would be ready for shaping.
By this time, we had realised that there was no fan in the room. We were wiping our brow merely standing there, watching Divakar knead a mountain of dough with his bare hands, his sculpted forearms glistening with the sweat of honest labour. The dough that had looked ragged and rough when he started out was now silken and smooth, the gluten strands stretched to their maximum capacity.
Mr Pinto, now dressed in shorts and an old tee shirt, ready for his shift, walked through the door and, without a word or nod of acknowledgement to us, headed straight for the oven, which he had already loaded from the rear end with wood and coconut husks, and lit it alive. While it “preheated”, he set the floury jute sacks out all over the floor and on any spare counter space he could see. From the storeroom, he brought out a tub of coarse, fawn-coloured wheat bran, a flat wooden board and a thin rolling pin and sat down on the floor right in the middle of the room.
Mrs Pinto entered on cue, her frock tucked between her legs, the way fisherwomen of that region wear their nine-yard saree, allowing her greater flexibility of movement without compromising modesty. She found her perch at the furthest end of the jute-sack assembly line.
From the position he had taken up at the other end of the room, Divakar was now throwing about four kilo-worth of dough to Mr Pinto. The latter quickly portioned it off into tennis ball-sized mounds and rolled them into perfect rounds – four at a time, two in each hand – against the wooden board. When he had enough to start off with, Mr Pinto pressed each ball into the tub of bran, coated it well in the sawdust-like fibre and rolled it out in two easy strokes into a one-fourth-inch thick disc so that the bran was now part of the dough itself.
Then, in the blink of an eye without even looking up, he tossed the disc in the general direction of Mrs Pinto. Accustomed to these acrobatics for decades, the missus fielded it effortlessly and placed it gently on the waiting jute sacks. This entire operation was carried out with a speed that left us dazed.
Meanwhile, the oven was heating up and so was the room. This heat was helping the poee to rise. Little bubbles of gas began appearing on the surface of the dough discs, indicating they were ready for the next stage. Mr Pinto took a break from his rolling and found a new perch right next to the blazing oven. He stoked the embers with a three-pronged metal contraption and set them to a side in the oven, cleaning the latter’s floor to receive the dough. With practised ease, he picked up the swelling discs of poee, arranged them on a huge wooden peel that looked suspiciously like a discarded oar and shoved them in the oven with one swift movement.
Divakar announced to us from the other end that poee needed to be baked when the oven was at its hottest, so it could puff up (somewhat like pita) and still stay soft inside, while the pull-apart-style pao could go in at a relatively cooler temperature. Speed was the key to success. By the time Mr Pinto had shoved another set of poee in, the first set was baked and ready to be removed. He pulled them closer to the tiny window, furthest away from heat, and brought in a basket, placing it under the window. With one quick sweep of his peel, the ready poee, bursting at the seams with steam, fell into the basket, as if relieved to be out of the oven’s blistering heat.
As the last batch of poee came out and the blackened aluminium trays of pao began going in, we were handed a poee each – the freshest I had ever held, scalding hot, coarse and deliciously sweet.
I asked Mr Pinto if he made the katricho pao (scissored bread, shaped a little like ciabatta), kankda (bangle-shaped hard breads, served with tea or soupy dishes) or undo (a thick pao, used to mop up curries). Suddenly, he seemed willing to grant me some credit for doing my research. With bits of the same dough, he demonstrated how each of the breads I had named were shaped, explaining that he only made them to order or once in a while around festivals, when they had more appeal and were in greater demand than usual. The everyday customer for his door-to-door service preferred the pao or poee, as did the hotels he supplied to.
He also mentioned a sweet coconut poee that he made on special occasions. By this time, the unusually shaped breads were baked to perfection and gifted to us with tired but beaming smiles from the baking team.
I wished I could have lingered a while longer to take in the sights and smells of this humble bakery, but there was no apparent reason to do so. I came away with a twinkle in my eye and a prayer in my heart, wishing the Goan poder many more centuries of business. I also left with a fear that my prayer would remain unfulfilled.
How to make poee
Baking time: 5 minutes
Baking temperature: 250–275 degrees Centigrade Yield: 6 medium-sized poee
Although the first poee were made using fermented toddy, that practice is almost obsolete now, considering the difficulty in procuring the liquor and the relative ease of finding commercial yeast. Like pita, poee greatly benefits from the use of a pizza stone during its preparation, as the stone traps the high heat of the oven and allows the poee to puff up and cook well on the inside in just a couple of minutes.
- 700g maida (plain flour) 5g salt
- 10g fresh or instant yeast 5g sugar
- 300ml lukewarm water (more or less, as required) 60g wheat bran
1. Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl or basin.
2. In a smaller bowl, place the yeast and sugar and pour over half the lukewarm water. Leave in a warm spot for about five to ten minutes, until frothy.
3. Pour the frothy yeast into the flour and mix into a dough, adding the rest of the water (as required) to make a soft dough.
4. Tip onto your kitchen counter and knead well for five to eight minutes, until you have a soft and easy-to-shape dough.
5. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp muslin cloth and leave in a warm spot to double in size (about twenty to forty minutes).
6. Punch the dough to release the gas and divide the dough into the six portions, shaping each into a ball. Cover and leave to rest again for fifteen to twenty minutes to allow the gluten to relax.
7. Liberally coat each ball in wheat bran, pressing the balls to flatten them in the bran.
8. Roll out each ball of dough to about six inches in diameter and a quarter inch in thickness.
9. Slap onto a pizza stone preheated in the oven or on a baking sheet lined with parchment or foil and bake for about five minutes at the highest temperature your oven can go to. Remove when puffed and just beginning to brown. Serve warm or cold.
Excerpted with permission from Crumbs: Bread Stories and Recipes from the Indian Kitchen, Saee Koranne-Khandekar, Hachette.