Updated: October 23, 2016 12:40:16 am
B for Bread. Even though I teach my toddler to say this out loud, as I hold out a piece of white sliced bread, it sounds all wrong. It is because the product in my hand is wide off the mark from the real thing. Living in Delhi makes you miss a lot of things from “home”, especially the freshly baked bread — made just right with a familiar shade of brown, the crackle of toasted bits at the edges, the white spongy inside that springs back when you prod it — which is delivered without a fuss at your doorstep. This bread starts with the letter P, an alphabet that kickstarts the day in my hometown, Goa.
A Goan brought up in Mumbai, and now living in Delhi, I went back to south Goa for a two-year sabbatical. I revelled in watching day break over Raia, a south Goa village, awake to the chimes of the church bell and birdsong. From my window, I watched the fog as it rose above the paddy fields, drinking in the clear cool dew-laden breeze, one deep breath at a time. But the hero, undoubtedly, of every Goan morning is the poder (derived from padeiro, meaning baker in Portuguese). The sun dare not rise over Goa until the poder’s squeeze horn rings through the morning mist.
Each village, each waddo (sector) has a specific poder who works at the local bakery. He carries a basket of pao (freshly baked country bread) piled high with kankons (bangle-shaped bread), soft chewy hollow poies and khatre pao (scissor bread, hinting at the tool used to give it shape).Each poder has seen children born and married, and attended funeral wakes in each household in his area. For y ears, he has brought home bread along with the village gossip. The poder who visits each house, parish priests, convents and even the dive bars to restock supplies, always knows the juiciest details. It could start with a simple question: “Did you hear what happened at the party at Faleiro’s house last night?” and the women wait to get hold of the poder to know more. But in the last decade, the poder’s life has seen more changes since the Portuguese landed on Goa’s shores.
It began in the 1550s. The Jesuits, who were part of the Salcete sub-district, one of the “old conquests” by the Portuguese in Goa, passed on the art of baking bread to the new Christian converts. According to Cozinha de Goa, History and Tradition of Goan Food authored by Fatima da Silva Gracias, the members of the Chardo caste of Majorda in Salcete, an area with good palm groves, helped produce the key ingredient, sur or toddy, that made the Goan bread rise and shine like no other. Sur found its way in Goan cuisine, thanks to the ingenuity of Jesuits who missed their Portuguese wine vinegar, and found a solution in the sap of the palm tree. The toddy tapper would climb the trees, and using a sharp sickle, cut the shoots that yield sur. He would then cover this cut with a clay pot or dried gourds that had their bellies emptied out. These collections of sur went in making vinegar, used for the fermentation of bread, and to make sannam (fermented rice cakes like idlis) and also palm feni. Today, sur is hard to find, and the poders now use commercial yeast.
The essential bread baked by the poders is the wheat bread or pao. Then there is the bhakri — a thick bran bread, that is cut open and hollowed out to stuff the chorizo in, or just to scoop up bhaji (vegetable stew). If you like hard bread, there is kodok bread (that is sweet and when dipped in black tea, it softens just right). The kankon, or bangle bread, is a hit with children who like to play with the bread before they crack it into two, and watch the ends swell as they dip it into milky tea. The kankon goes well with cream cheese and dollops of butter. Some bakers make a nankhatai-like buttery shortbread, called bottam biscuit or finger biscuit, also a favourite with children. The bol, or sweet soft bread, which is as large as a serving dish, is sweetened with coconut bits. This bread is not peddled by the poder, but can be bought only on a visit to the bakers.
One pao for the Philomena aunty, who lives alone in the pink cottage; two dozen bhakris for the Coelhos, who have made sorpotel for their son visiting from London; and three soft poiees for Santan and her young niece, who runs after the poder’s cycle for an extra kankon. The poder marks out his space in the village, he has a route that never changes, he makes his trips in the morning, and once at twilight.
The poder’s appearance has also changed with time. From carrying a basket on his head and holding a bamboo stick to ward off errant pigs and rabid dogs, to cycling with a squeeze horn and a huge bamboo basket covered with a plastic sheet strapped to the back seat — the poder is no longer an errand boy sent by the baker. He’s fashionable, has a smartphone, and may still know the church timings for the novenas (public prayers repeated for nine days) and tell you which house is hosting the ladainha (litany usually preceded with a rosary prayer) for the evening. But he is always in a hurry.
The landscape around him changes daily. A new hotel rises in a paddy field, an old villa crumbles with its balconies covered with creepers — perhaps, the poder, too, won’t be part of the landscape in the years to come. Even the price of the humble pao is used as political bait — it has gone from four aanas (25 paise), to Rs 2 per pao, a spike to Rs 3 when the new government came in 2012 to the very recent, earth-shattering Rs 5!
But these dark thoughts are easily dispelled when you mop up the vindaloo gravy with a soft poiee, and swallow a hint of sourness from the bran rich bhakri with your evening curry, as a bright yellow moon rises and swiftly dons a silver gleam. You also hope for a power cut — to mute TV sets shouting out news debates or just shut up the banshee-like shrieks of tourists dancing at a nearby beach shack — to take in the quiet. You want to think of the tiny womb-like warm bakery getting coconut hulls ready for the wood fire, as a mound of fermenting bread lies still under a damp cloth, waiting to rise and, soon, make its way to you, still warm with the wake-up call that has worked for centuries — the poder’s horn.
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