When I first moved to Madrid, I was surprised by how bread seemed to play one of the biggest roles in Spanish food culture. I’ve whipped up fabulous dinners that include rice, potatoes and pasta, but even with all those carbs on the table, my Spanish friends would still ask me the same question: ”¿Hay pan?”
People don’t know how to distinguish between the different qualities of bread.
Despite the importance of bread at the dining table, it seems pretty difficult to find what I consider to be “good quality” bread in Madrid. Whether visiting restaurants or bars, or even attending my suegra’s divine Sunday lunch gathering, I would often find myself chewing on cardboard-like bread with every meal.
In my attempt to be a good expat, I am more than willing to engage myself in my host country’s food culture, and I enjoy cocido madrileño, callos and pinchos de tortilla on a monthly basis. But when it comes to the bread they serve at even the most exquisite restaurants in Madrid, I am left clueless. In a country otherwise so full of gastronomic treasures, what’s the deal with the bad bread?
Well, it turns out Spain actually does have a rich bread making tradition, but some 40 years ago everyone’s favorite carb experienced an industrial boom, and instead of buying bread off local vendors selling their baked goods fresh out of the oven, bread became a mass industrial thing, explains Javier Marca, baker and bread expert from the Sampaka Bakery.
Little by little, bread in Spain went from being tasteful, rich and heavy to becoming fluffy loafs of low quality wheat flour pumped up with plenty of water, air and artificial yeast to make production faster and to be able to sell bread at lower prices. The Spaniards eventually got used to the lower prices, the new means of production and the lack of taste.
However, if you are a desperate expat used to satisfying your hunger with dark rye bread like me (us Danes are into the type of heavy bread that could easily double as ammo during war times), or even a lighter version, fear not because Madrid does offer alternatives to the cardboard baguette.
Good quality bakeries around town (see list at the end of this article) will be able to get you an easy fix, but why not invest a little time and money in becoming your own bread supplier? In these recession times, Madrid is booming with artesanal bread courses and according to Spanish Vogue the pan casero is the new gourmet capricho.
The courses that seem to be offered everywhere around Madrid will teach you how to work your way around everything from pizza, focaccia and the French baguette over kneading techniques to the wonder of baking with natural sourdough bacteria. And it’s fun and enlightening too!
“I want to make people discover how easy it actually is to make your own delicious bread,” says Javier. “People don’t know how to distinguish between the different qualities of bread and they have no idea that with only water, flour and salt you are able to produce bread at home that is so much better than what they serve at restaurants.”
Javier, who teaches courses in different bakeries around Madrid, often experiences that students are surprised by the taste of the bread they bake in his classes – that bread can actually have a taste and texture. He also finds it essential for the students to smell and feel their way through the learning process.
“There are a lot of videos out there with tutorials on how to bake your own bread, but by only watching videos you are missing out on various elements.” Just how sour is a sourdough supposed to smell, for example, or how a sticky dough can be transformed to obtain a smooth surface using the right kneading technique is a mere example of the skills you can obtain at bread baking courses.
With simple little tricks, a wee bit of patience and the will to learn, you can become your own baker with crumbs to spare for your family and friends. So next time you hear the inevitable “¿hay pan?” at a lunch, you can be sure to reply: “¡Toma ya!”
At most herbolarios around town
I am an anthropologist turned music producer turned full time knit and craft nerd, for business and pleasure. I love exploring cities in quirky manners and hope to guide you through hidden treasures and adventurous paths in Madrid.