Typical Spanish baguette
Of all of the gastronomic discoveries waiting to delight your palate in Spain, bread is not one of them. Although there seems to be a bakery on every corner, the pan inside is lamentable. While the crumb is gummy, the crust could double as a hockey puck. I was startled the first time I noticed an underbelly lined with rows of dots, like a secret message in braille– I knew bread, and this wasn’t normal. Was this mass production surprising? The typical barra, or baguette, is super-cheap, usually less than a Euro. Many supermarkets even offer a two-for-one Euro deal. If it seems too good to be true, it is.
Let me be quick to add that not all bread in Europe is created equal. I still remember the hearty soda bread from Dublin, the intriguing carrot pastry from Estonia, and grainy breads from Norway. My mouth waters when I think back to the Danish bakeries filled with an amazing array of seeded breads and tiny buns rolled in poppy seeds, which surpassed anything I had ever imagined about “Danish pastries.”
Forget cheese danishes, I want this!
Yeasted roll in Norway
Carrot pastry: two words you don’t expect together, yet surprisingly delicious
Is this a case of the-grass-is-always-greener? Yes and no. More than that, I think my travels around Europe have highlighted a particularly Spanish phenomenon. I get it–bread takes a long time to make, especially the yeasted kind which needs to rise. But in a land where time, patience, and quality ingredients are poured into countless other recipes, why should bread be treated any differently?
Though the Spanish may boast that the bread is “made in store!” or “made fresh today!” the truth is that it has usually been made elsewhere and frozen before it arrives. Packages of supermarket croissants, for example, have a label warning customers not to freeze them, as they have been previously frozen. It’s certainly not uncommon to see trucks deliver boxes of bread to bakeries, where the loaves will be put straight on the shelves.
When one thinks of Europe, it is all too easy to think that the food is of a traditional sort, and therefore high in quality. This notion is certainly helped by the constant flood of articles on the miraculous Mediterranean diet. The bread conundrum puzzles me–unfortunately, the current state of Spanish bread is a sorry one. I certainly agree with Mona, a fellow writer for ¡Vaya Madrid!, who believes that bread in Madrid is downright terrible.* Like Mona, I prefer to make my own bread.
A bit of history: growing up, I was spoiled with fresh bread. Mom would whip up homemade pizza dough and quick breads during the week, and dad’s yeasted loaves with their long rises filled the house with a cozy aroma every weekend. My parents were busy people, but they made time to ensure that we always had some fresh bread around. I was destined to become a bread snob, I just didn’t expect it would be so hard to find a decent loaf in Spain, where there are bakeries on every corner.
Baguette battle: may the one with the most broken teeth win
Other American bloggers have written about how living away from home has made them delve into the culinary arts, recreating favs from pumpkin puree to vanilla to fresh peanut butter. Bread, it seemed, was my quest. I decided to follow in my parent’s footsteps by rolling up my sleeves and flouring the counter in my tiny Spanish kitchen. Partly a nod to my parent’s own tradition, and partly my disillusionment with Spanish barras, I have started my own Sunday ritual of baking bread. Here are some tips I can pass along to those who are curious about dabbling in bread baking.
Grainy homemade bread à la Cassandra
Tips for bread baking in Spain
1) Sleuth for supplies
In Spain, it will take longer for you to gather all of your bread-baking supplies and ingredients. Not only do you have to learn the translations, you also have to figure out where the heck this stuff is hidden in stores. Yeast (levadura fresca), for example, is found refrigerated in tiny packs near the pre-made pizza dough and sheets of puff pastry. As for baking dishes and moldes, I stumbled upon a nifty baking store in my neighborhood–it never hurts to explore! I also bought this great proofing basket on Amazon Spain (the product comes from Germany, actually), which gives the humble loaves an elegant touch.
2) The herbolario is your treasure trove
For bread baking, hit up the herbolario, or health food store. It’s here that you’ll find an array of flours (buckwheat/spelt/rye), oats and grains (millet/amaranth/bulgar) and seeds (sesame/flax/sunflower). If you’re in Madrid, Valencia, or Mallorca, check out the well-stocked Herbolario Navarro.
3) Try your hand at yeasted bread
Try a basic recipe, and see how it goes! Yes, they take a long time, but during the rises you can go about your daily business. One simple recipe would be this Whole Wheat Honey Bread; once you get the hang of the basic recipe, you can start to experiment by adding different flours, grains, and seeds. If you’re really pressed for time, try an easy-peasy beer bread. You never know, one of these could become your new go-to loaf.
4) Get a silicone baking mat
Mine looks like this, and–full confession–came from the states. This helps makes the most of your tiny space, and makes clean-up much easier. It even makes your counter space portable, since you can carry the mat to a surface outside of your kitchen!
5) Do some additional reading for info and inspiration
Mona’s article: Read Why bread in Madrid is so often terrible and why you should bake your own to understand why Spanish bread is now so commercial. Hint: it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
Kaley y Much Mas – How being an expatriate can improve your culinary skills
Webos Fritos – Trece Preguntas sobre la Harina. This is your guide to flours in Spain, as they differ between countries (in name and protein content)
Have you ever tried your hand at making bread in Spain? Let’s chat! Leave your comment below.