The panaderia at its finest produced breads of which childhood food memories were made. Those were the days before store-bought loaves and fancy boulangeries. Perhaps that is why conversations about bread always turn nostalgic when people talk about childhood favorites.
A crusty pan de sal dipped in a cup of coffee. Loaf bread made into an egg sandwich. Soft ensaymada encrusted in sugar and margarine. The hardy nutribun you gnawed through recess. Buying bread from the mamang potpot.
Many Filipino households bought their breads from a man whose bicycle was fitted with a bread basket and a horn that made a “potpot!” sound. The mamang potpot, as he was called, traces his profession from the ambulant bread vendor depicted in the 19th-century letras y figuras paintings of Jose Honorato Lozano. The barefoot vendor balanced two wicker baskets on one shoulder to hawk the breads around town.
Fast forward to today, the mamang potpot and his bike can still be seen in some communities, sometimes with a glass-covered bread cart, bringing the breads to those who cannot be bothered to walk all the way to the panaderia.
But in my family, making a pilgrimage to the neighborhood panaderia at the break of dawn has always been a tradition. My lolo would come home with a brown supot (paper bag) filled with pan de sal which we would then spread with butter or coco jam.
At the panaderia, female sales staff man the counter while the panadero churn out breads at the back. There is a hierarchy to the production line: the master baker (maestro) is at the helm, assisted by the panadero or an apprentice. The hornero deftly handles the oven. There is also a member assigned to wrap the breads (tagabalot). In smaller bakeries, the maestro is a one-man team.
The best time to buy bread is when it had just come out of the oven. We like our breads hot not only because it ensures the bread is freshly made but it also echoes a warm, comforting meal. So, the panaderia builds its production schedule around it. Lines begin to form at the panaderia around 4:30 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m. when the breads are done.
At the Insular Bakery in Makati City, for example, you can only get their traditional putok pan de sal by 3 p.m. These breads get their name from the crack on the surface of the bread (and not the slang for someone’s body odor).
By the time you get home, the steaming hot breads will have warmed down and its flavor fully developed, the best time to eat them breads. They come wrapped in paper bags not because it’s quaint but doing so prevents condensation and keeps the pan de sal from getting soggy.
In the old days, the wood-fired oven (pugon) also defined a panaderia’s routine. Breads baked in high fire, like the pan de sal, went in first. As the glowing coals mellowed, breads like ensaymada were baked last. Eating a well-made pugon bread is one of life’s simplest pleasures—the bread imbibes the smoky aroma of the wood fire as it acquires a crisp, golden-brown crust.
But by the late 1970s, the pugon began its decline as bakeries turned to gas and electric ovens, which occupied less space than the cavernous pugon. The revised forestry code of the Philippines in 1975, which banned the cutting of mangroves (bakawan), also contributed to the eventual demise of the traditional oven as the bakawan were used for firewood.
In Metro Manila, Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City is one of the rare few that still manages to maintain a pugon. The bakery “crowdsources” its firewood through social media. The staff gathers fallen trees after a storm or from old trees that need trimming based on tips from loyal patrons.
The pugon is necessary in creating their crusty pan de sal de suelo, a less sweet affair much like the pan de sal of old. It is baked directly onto the oven floor (suelo is floor in Spanish) without the plancha (baking sheet). For his skill in lifting a batch of pan de sal with a baker’s peel without the breads toppling back into the oven, the oven man is the man.
Breads that can be bought any time of day were arranged on the bakery shelves. They are also known as “pang-estante” (for display). At the almost hundred-year-old Panaderia Dimas-Alang in Pasig City, customers snap up the pugon-baked pan de sal and bonete yet could also select from a dozen more choices of breads on display. There’s the monay, pan de coco, pan de limon, Spanish bread, pan Amerikano, hamburger buns, and more.
Filipino bakers were also a cheeky lot especially in naming the breads, from the racy-sounding monay to the unassuming kalihim, a folded bread with a red filling peeking on the sides. That red filling (essentially a thin pudding) tickles the imagination as the bread is also known in other places in more vulgar names.
Unsold breads take on a secret life in the bakery as they transform into biscocho, machakaw, or pudding the next day. The times have also witnessed the change in the flavor of the breads from salty or bland to sweet and sweeter. If you want breads that hark back to your grandmother’s era, head to the older heritage bakeries mentioned, which still try to stick to old formulas for most of their breads.
At the panaderia, you will also see sachets and jars of cheese spread, peanut butter, margarine, sardines, noodles, and softdrinks sold on the premises. It’s not a sari-sari store per se, but a service to the panaderia patron who need not go elsewhere for the things they could partner with the breads.
The ultimate panaderia experience is to be able to have your merienda right there on the spot. For less than the price of a frappe. It’s for those times when you just want the simplicity of a pan de coco and the joy of sipping a soda in a plastic bag with a straw.