Victor is a quiet man with a shy eyes, a sweet smile and a purple birthmark on half his face. He is a master baker and is well-known for this bread that he creates. He often makes three kilos of bread a day and during the Day of the Dead festivities, it can be three times that amount. However, this is not his only occupation. He also farms corn, wheat, and pigs and grows plants, flowers, and herbs to sell. In our travels, we heard that many artisans in Oaxaca have to juggle many different talents and jobs to make a living.
The “bakery” was a dark two-roomed shack with a corrogated metal roof and walls with soot-darkened wood beams. It was very dimly lit by a single florescent bulb and a tiny foggy window. Its not open to the elements in order to keep the temperature in the room, and and the oven, hot and steady. This version of his oven is vents to the outside, but his last one, which cracked during a major Oaxacan earthquake a few years back, was not. This means that the little room would get very smoky when the ovens were burning. This is not at all uncommon in the rural Oaxacan kitchens. I can only imagine the condition of the local peoples’ lungs after breathing the thick, black wood smoke daily.
He demostrated how he weighs the flour, ground from the wheat that he grows, and then mixes in the toasted anise seeds, lard (a neutral-smelling one from his pigs), and adds the yeast/water/sugar mixture. He mixes the dough until its soft and pliable and rolls it into a six foot log. Its cut into small even pieces, which are then kneeded into balls two at a time. I had the chance to try it and I must say rolling and kneeding two pieces of dough evenly at the same time, one with each hand, felt an awful lot like patting my head and stroking my stomach. Victor’s 28 years of practice made it look like a walk in the park. His finished loaves looked like perfect little lovely orbs and mine were lopsided and a bit mangled.
Each piece is then rolled in sesame seeds and then rolled out, with a handy beer bottle. They are rolled into a flat circle and set on an 8 foot long movable shelf. The shelf, when full, is moved next to his wood burning oven.
Getting the heat just right was quite an art and involved experience and intuition, not temperature gauges and timers. He first moved the hot and ashen wood charcoal to the side of the oven with a long-handled broom. The broom was first wet in a bath to keep it from igniting while in the oven. He swept the bottom of the oven to clear it of ash. The process looked to be quite a full body workout!My muscles ached just watching him manuever this 10 foot long broom up and around and all around the oven to get it perfectly clean in preparation for the dough.
He then put an iron sheet over the coals, facing where the loaves will sit and bake. The iron heats up and then helps to even out the temperature of the coals throughout the oven. Finally, he slices two slashes in each dough with a razor blade and slid them in the oven with something like a long wooden pizza peel, eight at a time. We watched as the bread baked and rose before our eyes and in ten minutes they had become puffy and golden brown. The smell was of anise, sesame, and toast and when we broke one open to sample, it was soft on the inside with subtle tastes of both sweet and savory. Delicious.
We bid Victor, his dear family, and the puppies adios and left eagerly anticipating our pan de burro dessert, to be served with hot chocolate and pineapple and raspberry marmalade later that afternoon.