Lisa Asuncion shares her love of bread from her homeland.
When asked what a typical Filipino bread is, I would have to say pan de sal. Sometimes spelled pandesal, these rolls are the star of a traditional breakfast in the Philippines. The dough for pan de sal is rolled in breadcrumbs before dividing into rolls. Traditionally, a wooden dough cutter is used, resulting in distinctive, slightly pointed tips at the ends of the rolls, whose shape reminds me of coffee beans.
Pan de sal has a thin, lightly crispy golden-brown crust, markedly different from the substantial and chewy crust of European-style breads. It has a light and airy texture and an almost neutral flavour, making it amenable to the addition of flavours and fillings.
Before commercial bakeries started churning out their attempts at pan de sal, available from supermarkets at any time of day, everyone bought them early in the morning from local corner bakeries called panaderias. Bakers would prepare the dough at night and bake these pillowy delights, traditionally in a wood-fired brick oven called a pugon, in time for sunrise. Packaged in brown paper bags with the outer edges pinched and the whole bag spun to seal it, there is nothing more satisfying than these freshly-baked delights, making a 5 a.m. trek to a panaderia advertising ‘Hot Pan de Sal’ worthwhile.
Tracing the origins of pan de sal requires a quick lesson in Philippine history. Our islands are tropical and the main source of carbohydrate is rice. We have a solid love affair with the grain, eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Savoury dishes are paired with steamed rice, while other dishes are served with steamed rice cakes called puto, rather than a crusty roll.
In his account of Magellan’s first voyage around the world, Antonio Pigafetta reported people on the island of Zamal (now Samar) making bread from coconut flour. It wasn’t until colonisation by Spain in the 16th century, however, that what many people now recognise as bread was introduced to the archipelago’s cuisine. The colonisers brought with them plants, animals, recipes and cooking techniques from Europe and South America, including wheat, pigs, cows, maize, pineapple, spices, potatoes, tomatoes and leavened bread making. The Philippines remained a Spanish colony for more than 300 years, so it is not surprising that many of these became embedded as staples and much-loved elements of our culinary culture.
According to Amy Uy and Jenny Orillos, authors of the book Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit and Bakery Traditions, the original ingredients of pan de sal were wheat flour, salt, sugar, water, pork lard and yeast. Contrary to its name, which means salt bread, pan de sal became sweet over the years as sugar became cheaper and more easily available, perhaps to extend shelf life and meet changing Filipino tastes.
Though still the star of the Filipino breakfast, many versions of pan de sal have emerged and it is no longer just a morning staple. Noteworthy variants are ube (purple yam), malunggay (moringa) and kalabasa (squash). Popular fillings include adobo, a stew that is considered the Philippines’ national dish. Meat, chicken, seafood or vegetables are marinated in vinegar, garlic, black pepper, bay leaves and sometimes soy sauce, before being browned and then simmered. Another is asado, which is similar to adobo but made using tomato sauce and a citrus fruit called kalamansi/calamansi (or calamondin) instead of vinegar. Corned beef is also a common filling.
Pan de sal today
The 21st century pan de sal might be unrecognizable to our 16th century ancestors but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It continues to be enjoyed and will continue to evolve in the capable hands of Filipino bakers such as Gretchen Lim and Jay Matic.
Gretchen is the founder of Manilabake, which she co-owns with Ramon Daez in Quezon City, Philippines. It was Italian biscotti that started it all for Gretchen. From a home-based business in the 1990s, she expanded to cakes and pastries. In 2008, shortly after she joined her husband’s Sérye Restaurant and Café, she ventured into bread and then sourdough baking in 2011. In 2012, the previously unnamed bakery became Manilabake.
Gretchen is obviously fascinated with the science behind bread making. She confides that her favourite evening pastime is reading her extensive collection of books on cooking and baking by her heroes Peter Reinhart, Jeffrey Hamelman, Richard Bertinet, Shirley Corriher, and Sam Fromartz. Since the early 2000s, she has also been reading blogs and browsing scientific publications online. An equal amount of, if not more, time is spent trialling and tweaking her recipes.
Past, present, future
Gretchen is unwavering in the use of quality ingredients and she has worked hard to obtain unbleached, chemical-free flour, long before it was readily available to bakers in the Philippines. She also actively sources and incorporates local ingredients, resulting in out-of-the-ordinary flavoured breads with incredible texture and crust. They include flours milled from adlai (also known as Chinese pearl barley), brown and black rice, mung beans and banana flour. Some of these were initially difficult to incorporate but overcoming technical challenges seems to be a driver for Gretchen. She is currently busy developing products for a growing number of people requesting vegan-friendly and gluten-free breads. Her latest product is adlai and rice bagels. The highlight of her bread making journey so far is still her black rice and wholewheat loaf, a high fibre bread with the distinctive, sweet flavour of black rice.
Gretchen honours old-time techniques but embraces new ones in the pursuit of the perfectly Manilabaked bread. Their pan de sal combines pork lard, which they render themselves, with a 12-hour sourdough fermentation. Gretchen reveals they also add pork broth, a previously secret trick that was shared by her mother’s friend, Angelina Cuevas Bautista. It was Angelina’s brother, Ernesto Cuevas, who came up with the idea of incorporating pork bone stock into pan de sal, which the Cuevas family used at their bakery in Cuenca, Batangas, in the late 1970s.
Innovating using local ingredients has always been the main focus of Gretchen’s Manilabake and I don’t see this changing in the future.
A taste of Manila in the midlands
Jay Matic, is the founder and owner of Manila Artisan Breads in Birmingham, England. Originally from the Philippines, Jay and his family moved to the UK in 2006. While living in London, he worked in restaurants and sold his own cakes on the side, under the name Cakes Underground, but it has always been bread that fascinates him. Jay credits his introduction to artisan bread making, and the baking style of Richard Bertinet, to Les and Louise Nicholson of The Artisan Bakehouse in Ashurst, West Sussex. It was also the Nicholsons who encouraged Jay to pursue further studies. In 2017, he took the plunge and enrolled at the National Bakery School at London South Bank University. In 2020, Jay graduated with a BSc in Baking Science and Technology, the first Filipino to do so since the NBS opened in 1894.
The idea for Manila Artisan Breads came to Jay in 2018 while walking the streets of Earls Court. This part of London has a high concentration of Filipino stores and restaurants but Jay was unimpressed by the mass-produced Filipino-style baked products on offer. He wanted to introduce high-quality Real Bread, as made in old Manila, to the UK. To learn about traditional techniques that don’t involve additives and artificial preservatives, Jay visited panaderias in Pasig and Bulakan. He tells me that in the famous Panaderia Dimas-Alang, founded in 1919, day-old dough or scraps and starter are incorporated into the main dough, which is then folded several times and rested for ten minutes, before undergoing a long and slow fermentation. This produces more complex flavours, aroma and a softer texture.
From baking only on weekends, fitting in with his weekday job in bakery new product development, to his first market stall in April 2022, to going full time that December, Jay has made great strides in establishing the reputation of Manila Artisan Breads. In addition to pan de sal, other Filipino favourites are integral to Manila Artisan Breads’ product range. They include pan de coco, Spanish bread and ensaymadas (a sweet, yeast-based pastry) either plain or with cheese, ube (purple yam), or chorizo fillings, which are popular in the ‘ber’ months.
Filipino breads are characteristically sweeter and softer and to cater to a wider client base, Jay has expanded his product line to include Western-style breads. Through his three Saturday market stalls, Jay continues to introduce Filipino-style breads and flavours to his customers.
Though the spiralling cost of energy and ingredients is a challenge for all bakeries (Jay hopes for more government support) he still looks to the future and plans to expand this year. He dreams of a small coffee shop with a bakerytheatre, where people from his local community can convene, have a pan de sal with kesong puti (a soft, fresh cheese made with milk of the carabao – water buffalo), and sip barako coffee, made from the Coffea liberica bean.
Jay is dedicated to using English flour and sourcing fruit and vegetables locally, even putting in the effort to talk to allotment owners in the area closeto his bakery. This and his enthusiasm in sharing the story behind his bread will surely make a positive impression on anyone and help to make Filipino breads more well known in the UK.
Loaf love in a land of rice
For a nation that has a solid love affair with rice, we Filipinos, have also grown to love bread ever since its introduction to our cuisine by the Spanish almost five hundred years ago. Nearly half a millennium on, there is enough in the repertoires of Filipino panaderias to write a book about, as Amy Uy and Jenny Orillos have shown. Nonetheless, it is pan de sal that will always be the bread that’s truly and unmistakably Filipino and which all Filipinos love.
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Published 11 Apr 2023
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