“Trying to make a crust these days is no laughing matter. Madeira people have been rising to the occasion. ” — David J Whyte
José or ‘Zé Padre’ to give him his local nickname worked in the butcher shop in Santo da Serra for most of his working life but lost that position due to the Covid-related downturn in trade. With little else on his plate, he decided to ‘use his loaf’ and get into the bread business! It’s been a rising success!
José’s grandfather had made the family’s daily bread since the 1950s in their small property just outside the village of Santo da Serra. Now, through fate or good fortune, Jose has been passed the baton… or in this case a rolling pin!
Artisan bread has long been popular in upmarket restaurants in London, New York, Paris etc. Here in Madeira, Bol do Caco remains the carb king island-wide, usually served as a starter and soaked in garlic butter. I don’t do bread generally, being a bit wheat-sensitive but I must admit, a sliver of Bol do Caco once in a while is hard to resist. I’ve noticed of late some Funchal restaurants serving other excellent local bread varieties made in small bakeries, tascas or even people’s homes around the island. Santo da Serra’s sweet-potato-bread is legendary and since setting up his home-based operation, Jose’s daily batches are eagerly snapped up by locals.
José was built to bake bread. He’s a sturdy lad with the strength needed to knead the dough. I told him, “My father was a baker and I used to work in his shop in Davenport, Iowa as a teenager, getting up at a 4am on Saturdays to work the jam-doughnut machine.” I’d then sleep on the sacks of flour until it was time to go home. I often wondered where I got my wheat allergy.
Santo da Serra’s breadwinner - José
My father had a professional kneading machine to mix his bread dough. “I would love such a machine,” José laughed as he leaned into the deep wooden bowl he used to knead the floury mix, “but I don’t think the bread would taste as good. This is the traditional way and if I changed it, people would notice!” I think he’s right! Here in Santo da Serra, the old ways endure! For José, it might seem a bit labour-intensive but that’s how he maintains the quality, flavour and tradition. He bakes four batches of 21 loaves each of his workdays, a total of 84 daily loaves. At Christmas, demand pushes it up to 100.
The only piece of modern equipment I could see in Jose’s operation was his mobile phone, used as a flashlight to keep an eye on the rising loaves as well as taking frequent orders from his customers. Testing the temperature of the 70-year-old brick oven was even less high-tech! Tearing a corner of paper from an empty flour sack, he threw it into the heart of the oven. If the paper ignited, the oven was too hot. If it turned black, it was still too hot. If it does neither, it was time to bake. Next, he took a long broom handle, loosely attached to a wet rag to mop the oven floor and wipe away the ash. The oven was now good-to-go and he loaded up the next batch. “I started at 3am this morning to get the first batch ready,” he told us. “People are queuing at 8am.” He only bakes twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday, those two days giving him enough income to get by and indulge in his other passion.
BREAD & WINE
One thing I love about visiting Madeira’s traditional artisans, there’s always a glass of wine involved. Along with some freshly baked bread & butter, we sampled Jaquê or Jaké. I’ve tasted similar in rustic, neighbourhood bars (tascas) on several occasions. It tastes more alcoholic but José assured me it just has a stronger flavour. Perhaps sensing my sensitivity to the ‘rough stuff,’ José produced a smoother vintage from the Machico area just down the valley.
BREAD & JAM
To round off the visit, we indulged in José’s other passion, music!
José is an excellent performer, singing Portuguese songs and playing guitar or accordion. He’s wrapped it all together into a unique experience where visitors to his home bakery can watch him prepare the bread, sample some with a glass of wine, local or otherwise and enjoy a couple of songs from our bread-making maestro. Of course, I had to get in on the act and accompany him on guitar while he sang and played the accordion. I asked him what his favourite 1970s band was. “Bread,” he replied! No, he didn’t! I just made that up...
David J. Whyte