Monday, December 13th 2021

Fresh Bread in Mexico

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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Fresh Bread in Mexico

When people think of the staples in Mexico, they often think of tortillas—flour tortillas, corn tortillas—but they rarely think of bread. Surprisingly, fresh bread is a huge part of Mexican cuisine.

Mexicans tend to live off fresh bread. Many Mexicans eat it every day. They might pair it with a soup or broth, but the most common way of eating fresh bread in Mexico is as a torta. A type of Mexican sandwich, a torta is often filled with taco fillings, like bistec or pork al pastor.

In this article, we’ll discuss the history of fresh bread in Mexico, the types of bread that are common, and how you can begin to incorporate it into your daily life in Mexico.

History of Bread in Mexico

Fresh Bread in Mexico

– Grains in Prehispanic Mexico

Bread is not native to Mexico. In fact, the entire concept of baking is foreign. Indigenous peoples worked with grains, such as amaranth, but these were mixed with maguey sap, the sweet liquid produced by agave plants, to work into rough shapes, and then they were toasted on a comal.

The Chichimecas also worked with grains. They even made a type of flour from ground mesquite beans, but this was only formed into a rudimentary flatbread. Overall, using yeast was an innovation that would arrive with the Spanish.

– Bread in Colonial Mexico

Wheat was introduced to Mexico because it was the only acceptable grain with which to fashion communion wafers. Amaranth production—which was sacred to the natives—was therefore replaced with wheat production as a necessary step in converting the population to Catholicism. In fact, the first crop of wheat was planted on Hernan Cortes’ land. This plot of land would later be given to Juan Garrido, his baker.

These first bakeries were established in the 1520s, but were not run by the European conquistadores. The task of baking (which had always been a family enterprise in the European homeland) was given to the indigenous population, because the Spanish had no desire to cook for themselves. For this reason, baking bread in one’s home never solidified as a tradition, also in part because few kitchens had ovens.

It took a while for bread to enter the Mexican market. The first bread in Mexico was rather poor quality, and the native population refused to eat it. However, as the mestizo population grew—those who were a mix of Spanish and indigenous blood—the market for bread grew with it. Still, corn remained the main staple, which only served to entrench baking as a specialized skill.

The baking of bread was highly regulated during the colonial period. Wheat milling licenses were established to control prices, and to propagate the burgeoning market, Cortes ordered that bread had to be sold in all town squares.

Furthermore, the size, weight, and price of bread were all standardized, and each bakery had to mark their products with a seal to identify who the baker was. Wheat farmers had to sell their products to millers, who had to sell the processed flour to bakeries—and all sales had to be reported to the government—all in order to ensure that a supply of bread was readily available at a cost the peasants could afford. Despite this, corruption ran afoul, like cutting the wheat with less expensive grains and other dishonest practices.

Eventually, baking became a specialized trade, and guilds led by master bakers were formed so that they—and other members of the wealthy elite—could monopolize the sale of bread at local markets. These guild members had to have some Spanish blood, and baking soon became a lucrative endeavor.

However, these guild members never actually baked the bread. The work was done by indigenous laborers who had no hope of advancement. Some few native women, who had learned to bake in convents, would sell bread outside the bakeries, but they risked harsh punishment if they were caught. For 14 – 18 hours a day, indigenous workers would toil—kneading the dough being an especially taxing endeavor —and the conditions were harsh.

Working in hot and poorly ventilated kitchens, many natives developed throat or nasal ulcers, respiratory infections, or even tuberculosis. Most of these laborers died young—either of illness or alcoholism. So brutal was the work, that it was often used as punishment for convicts who would be made to serve a sentence of kneading dough for years.

Fresh bread’s role in Mexican cuisine was mostly associated with breakfast. “Pan dulce” (or “sweet bread” in Spanish) was a breakfast staple in the early days of the colonial period. It was often eaten with hot chocolate. By the end of the 17th Century, coffee had replaced hot chocolate—creating a typical breakfast that remains to this day. Though sweet bread can be noted as early as 1554 in Mexico, bakeries that specialized in pan dulce, known as bizcocherias, became very popular.

– Bread in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Though the French influence on Mexican bread can be traced back to the 17th Century, it really began to flourish in the 18th Century, until it would dominate the face of fresh bread in Mexico.

Much of the terminology comes from the French. For example, baño maria (referring to the heated water bath for custard-style bread) comes from the French bain-marie. Many of the most typical Mexican types of bread evolved from their French ancestors. Conchas, can trace their origins back to the French brioche, and bolillos come from French baguettes.

After the Mexican War of Independence, regulations that had been formed during the colonial period (which had kept baking bread in the hands of Spaniards and mestizos) were loosened in the hopes of improving working conditions for workers in the bakeries. Alas, the need to keep bread prices down so that the general population could afford them meant keeping the old practices—including debt peonage and forced labor.

The Mexican–American War brought to Mexico a taste for bread loaves—in particular sandwich bread. Shortly afterward, during the reign of Porfirio Diaz, pastries and other French styles of bread were in fashion—especially in the cafes of Mexico City.

During the 19th Century, the volatile political climate of the Porfiriato (the term for the reign of this influential military general and president) meant that many bakeries changed ownership often. This instability paved the way for many Europeans of French, Basque, Austrian, and Italian descent to enter the market. In 1884, one such Italian family—the Tronconi—established perhaps Mexico’s most famous bakery: El Globo, which has since become a successful chain. In fact, many of these European entrepreneurs vastly increased the number of bakeries throughout Mexico.

However, these new Europeans did little to change the horrid conditions of laborers in bakeries throughout Mexico. They preferred to adopt the monopolistic practices that had been the standard in Mexican bakeries, including alliances by marriage. It wasn’t until a strike took place in 1895 that the first glimmers of change took place—first, they ended the practice of keeping bakers locked in dormitories when they weren’t working.

– Bread in the 20th and 21st Centuries

The strike of 1895 was only the beginning. Workers were still stuck working 14– to 18-hour days as they had been since the 16th century. They rarely had any time off, Day of the Dead being one marked exception.

It wasn’t until the end of the Mexican Revolution that conditions changed in bakeries in Mexico. Sure, bakers joined in labor movements and activism aimed at reform. Unfortunately, bakeries were harder to reform—especially during the war when the population depended on inexpensive bread to survive. It would not be until 1928 that bakeries were able to finally reform their practices.

This would herald the modern age, when, in the 1940s, the industrialization of baking fresh bread would revolutionize the industry. Mechanical kneaders and industrial mixers allowed for a less labor-intensive process—and a boost in the amount of bread sold.

The sales process remained tedious, however. The bread was kept in glass cases, and customers had to ask vendors to put together their orders. It wasn’t until 1950 that a baker named Antonio Ordoñez Rios decided to leave out the baked goods for the public to grab whatever they wished, place them on trays, and then bring them up to the vendor. This is the system that is used to this day.

Today, Mexico’s baking legacy can be felt across the planet. With its headquarters in Mexico City, the international conglomerate Grupo Bimbo has continued to acquire baking companies, and has now become the largest producer of baked goods in the world.

Types of Bread in Mexico

Fresh Bread in Mexico

There are three main types of bread in Mexico (as I would classify them): the bolillo, similar to a French baguette, the telera, a soft, spongy, savory bread, and the pan dulce. Bolillo and telera make up 85% of all sales in Mexico. The last 15% is an accumulation of all the many different types of sweet bread that there are in Mexico.

The most famous type of pan dulce is the concha. Meaning "shell" in Spanish, the concha is a round sweet bread that is topped with—for lack of a better term—what I would call a thin crumble: a mixture of sugar, butter, flour, and sometimes dye.

Beyond that, there are probably hundreds of different types of sweet bread in Mexico. Far too many for me to list here. Some are American classics, like donuts, others are French classics like eclairs and other pastries. Some have frosting, icing, or sprinkles, while others are mildly sweet.

I would like to mention my favorite: the barquillo. Meaning a little boat, this is a pastry cone that is filled with pastry crème (or sometimes chocolate cream). This treat is most popular in southern Mexico. However, I would encourage you to find your own favorite. Try a new one every time you go to the supermarket. You may find a type of pan dulce that is your favorite.

One of Mexico’s favorite sweet breads is pan de muerto. Popular only around the Day of the Dead, pan de muerto is just a sweet bread with granulated sugar on top, and super cool crossbones baked into the top. Its importance as a bread lies in its ritualistic and festive aspects, rather than one that is genuinely innovative and unique.

Buying Bread in Mexico

Fresh Bread in Mexico

Buying bread in Mexico is very simple, though it can be confusing at times if you’re not used to freshly baked bread. Whether you walk into an independent bakery or supermarket, you’ll see fresh bread strewn about the bakery.

No matter what you grab in a bakery or supermarket, you first grab a tray and pair of tongs. Next, you load your tray with everything you need (be it sweet bread, bolillo, or telera), and finally, you go to the checkout counter in the bakery where they bag it up and put a receipt on it for you. This receipt is what the teller at the grocery store will ring up when it comes to paying for all your purchases.

When I say that things can get a little complicated, it’s usually because I first grab a piece of pan dulce, and then I’ll forget to take that to the counter at the bakery or grocery store. As long as you remember that whatever you grab from the bakery needs to be bagged and added to the receipt, then you’ll be fine.

Storing Bread in Mexico

Fresh Bread in Mexico

I’m not going to lie here. Nothing beats fresh baked bread. If you live very near a bakery, I recommend not even bothering to store fresh bread, and just constantly eat it as fresh as possible from the bakery itself.

But life happens. People get busy. It becomes unfeasible to try and get fresh bread daily unless you make it a part of your routine. In that case, the best way to store fresh bread is in a bread box.

The secret to a bread box is that it allows for a bit of airflow; not enough to dry the bread, but also not enough to make it overly spongy. This is in hopes of keeping the bread fresh as long as possible before it goes stale. It also helps prevent the development of mold.

Fresh bread is hard on the outside, and soft and spongy on the inside. This hard shell is the first to go. The moisture on the inside will eventually soften the outside, making the entire piece of bread soft, though it’s still quite good. This process will happen in a matter of hours. Four to six hours later, your bread is already soft. If you live in a high-humidity area, then you can expect that period of time to be cut drastically.

It will stay soft for several days, and if you like your bread that way, then I do recommend buying in bulk. Many Mexican families would agree that it’s fine. Personally, I recommend just buying what you need for that day, and making a trip to the bakery a frequent occurrence.

A Note on Stale Bread in Mexico

Fresh Bread in Mexico

When bread is dry, we often consider it stale—“we” being the segment of the population not composed of professional bakers. However, dry bread is not necessarily stale, and stale bread is not necessarily dry.

Staling involves a process of retrogradation, whereby starches are transposed to a crystalline structure via the water that is contained in the bread itself. If it’s colder, the process happens faster—so refrigerated bread gets stale faster. (Ironically, frozen bread traps the moisture as ice and so halts the staling process).


Fresh Bread in Mexico

Though it’s not a common attribute that we should associate Mexico with fresh bread, it remains a part of millions of Mexicans daily lives. Whether accompanying a caldo (broth), or used in a torta, fresh bread is a big part of the Mexican culture.

If you’re moving to Mexico, and you’re not familiar with fresh-baked bread, then we encourage you to try and incorporate fresh bread into your diet. For only a couple pesos a piece of bread, you’re sure to save money, while enjoying one of the rare pleasures in eating: fresh bread.

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