Heritage

The Path Of Pan de Sal

“Pan de sal is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes.”

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On Mabini Street in Barrio Kapasigan, a red van filled with firewood is parked in front of a two-story white house, inscribed with “Dimas-Alang” and the year “1919.” A man in a white sando wraps the logs in a towel and carries them inside Panaderia Dimas-Alang. The bakery uses the logs to fuel its century-old wood-fired oven (pugon) to make traditional breadsa rarity in Metro Manila these days, when many have switched to gas ovens. Panaderia Dimas-Alang is one of the remaining bakeries that still keep to tradition since it was founded in Pasig in 1919.

 
At the heart of this panaderia is their pan de sal, once hailed by a local magazine as one of the best in the metro. Panaderia Dimas-Alang’s pan de sal has its roots from traditional recipes, with just a hint of salt and the breath of the wood-fired oven clinging to its light, crisp crust. It is the pan de sal most recognize: a small, oval bread with a brown crust, dusted with breadcrumbs, and narrow, pointed leaf-like edges on the top that distinguishes it from an ordinary dinner roll. This type of pan de sal is baked on a half-sheet pan (plancha) hence it’s also known as pan de sal de plancha
The pugon and its long baker’s peel is on the ready for loading the prepared dough for baking.
In the old days, these types of bread were entirely done by hand. They have since been able to adapt to modern processes, particularly by using mixers to prepare the dough. The pugon remains an important element of the traditional pan de sal, but its popularity diminished after the ban on cutting of the bakawan (mangroves) used as fuel and the rise of the gas oven.
 
Still, bakers continue to shape the pan de sal by hand so the result has the same shape, texture and flavor as what can be deemed “traditional,” especially in the memories of older consumers who grew up on them. To taste pan de sal a little salty, almost bland is to savor the simple, pure flavor of bread, Filipino-style.

The maestro panadero rolls and tucks the edges of the dough to form into a baston before cutting, the Spanish word for cane or walking stick. This is a special technique done in making the traditional pan de sal.

At the supermarket, there are the rounded, less crusty, soft and lighter-colored pan de sal: pre-packaged, sanitary and uniform, as the dough has been produced in quality-controlled processes and modern equipment. The sweet pan de sal is also being made today at a small panaderia or in larger bakery chains, which have adapted to the preferences of contemporary times. It deviates from the origin of its name: “bread of salt.” If you compare the formulations, the “new” pan de sal has 18% sugar while the old-fashioned has only 1.75%.
 
Both traditional and modern pan de sal variations co-exist to this day at the panaderia. The shift from the traditional happens when certain variables of pan de sal-making change: the move from manual mixing to machine mixers, baking in a pugon to gas ovens, using fresh or active dry yeast to instant dry yeast (reducing fermentation time).
The danger is that many of us come to know only the kind of pan de sal most convenient and accessible to us. What do we lose when we forget or never know the form and taste of the traditional pan de sal? What if our breadmakers forego tradition in favor of profit and convenience?
 
In essence, we lose a little of who we are. Pan de sal “is our basic tinapay, our ‘bread of salt,’ whether putok or pang-araw-araw (the daily bread). It is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes,” writes Doreen Fernandez eloquently in her book Palayok. “It is brown and plain like the Filipino, good by itself or alone, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It is good, basic and strong—just the way we are, and would like the nation to be.”
Six years ago, we traveled to as many local bakeries as we could to do research for Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit and Bakery Traditions, a book I co-authored with food writer Amy A. Uy. One of the first bakeries we visited was Panaderia Dimas-Alang. Inside, we found traces of traditional breadmaking—the cavernous pugon with its long baker’s peel, the wooden drawer the size of a door where the dough is rolled in breadcrumbs, and vintage escaparate to display the breads.
 
Manolo Lozada, the owner, inherited the bakery from his parents Lucio Lozada and Felisa Santos Lozada who had acquired it from an offshoot of a much older bakery from the 1900s. He wrote down their old recipes in order to preserve them after interviewing their maestro panadero (master baker), Emiliano Torres, who was also his cousin and a very good baker.
 
“But the measurements are a little embarrassing,” he said. “Sometimes it says ‘one cup from a tin of evaporated milk,’” referring to how the panadero of old would cut an empty milk tin in half to serve as container and measuring cup.
Manolo is a painter, but after inheriting the bakery he studied at the Philippine College of Arts and Trades (PCAT) to learn the rudiments of baking. The lessons included ingredients measured by weight rather than volume. The milk tin method is common in the history of other panaderia in the Philippines. A precursor to the weighing scale; it spoke of the bakers’ resourcefulness. But for a time, it kept the panaderia from becoming more efficient—accurately measured ingredients produce better yield, which in turn reduces wastage.
 
The older panadero clung to their tin cans and plastic pitchers out of habit, until the bakery owners adopted the weighing scale.
 
Still, some traditional practices live on.
Merced Bakehouse in Quezon City is a bakeshop founded in 1972 that makes panaderia breads alongside 70s-era specialties like the chocolate beehive and birthday cakes with marshmallow icing. The head baker Juanito Pacia, fondly known as Simeon, shapes two kinds of pan de sal (kalabasa and malunggay). He also bakes Merced’s popular egg pan de sal, smaller in size, soft and yellow-hued from the eggs and butter.
 
Simeon, who has been working here since 1980, hails from the town of Cuenca, Batangas, also the hometown of many bakers working in other panaderia across the country. As a baker for the past 33 years, he has become accustomed to the changing times.
 
“We used active dry yeast and blocks of fresh yeast before. Now we use instant dry yeast with bread improver,” he said. He also knew how to measure with empty milk tins. “But it’s better to use the scale. One has to look after the cost of ingredients,” he said.
The cost of ingredients directly affects how local bakers made bread. As the price of flour increases, the weight of the pan de sal decreases. Our great-grandparents enjoyed big, hefty pan de sal. In 1908, the health department issued a 30-day food guide for Filipinos, which listed pan de sal as part of the breakfast menu. The menu chart indicated that one large piece of pan de sal weighed 80 grams and was sold for two cents apiece. Its nutritional information was also listed as having “198.72 calories, 5.68 protein, 41.84 carbs, .96 fat.” 
 
Perhaps the closest version to this type of pan de sal that still exists to this day is the pan de sal de suelo, traditionally baked directly on the floor of a pugon to get the ridge or crack on the top. It requires the pugon to be very clean, as the dough pieces have to be directly loaded onto the oven floor. At Kamuning Bakery, the pugon’s floor is swept clean daily before the bread is baked. Once cleaned of debris and dirt, Kamuning’s pugon is further wiped down with katcha or flour bags turned inside out.
Six years later, I return to Panaderia Dimas-Alang. The bakers wear their signature orange t-shirts emblazoned with the white bakery logo. But the black hairnets have been replaced with white baker’s skull caps. Inside the baking area, sunlight streams down from the windows on all corners of the bakery. The chatter of the cake decorators on the mezzanine floor harmonize with the occasional hum of the mixers.
 
Elmer Bernardo loads the well-maintained pugon with half-sheet pans filled with aglipay biscuit dough, prepared by the bakers working on a wooden worktable nearby. He is the day shift’s hornero (oven man), his green apron and worn out oven gloves distinguish him from the bakers. He accommodates a tray of bonete handed to him for reheating (a customer’s order). He waits for the pan de sal dough to finish its final rise before loading them into the pugon, which could fit 80 pans in all.
Just across the pugon, four more worktables bustle with activity. A baker named Jemmy Potot expertly pulls dough by hand into uniform pieces—soon it will be made into Spanish bread. As he spreads the filling onto each flattened piece, he calls out for his fellow bakers. He rolls the dough quickly, like thick cigars rather than the usual crescent roll-shape we see in other bakeries. A few minutes later, his assistant steps in. They work fast so that the dough does not stand too long on the worktable and become over-proofed.
Behind the tandem, a baker brushes giant ensaymada with butter while another kneads a new biscuit dough. The head baker, Dominador Caguioa, pipes cake batter onto paper-lined muffin pans. His assistant sprinkles the tops with chopped peanuts. Ador, as the bakers call him, finishes piping a 12-cup pan in a matter of seconds, only spilling batter just a little bit when he stops to answer a question.
Ador has been with Panaderia Dimas-Alang for 35 years. He is the current maestro panadero, a title one earns not through certification or culinary school but bestowed upon him at the bakery because of his experience and expertise. The other bakers learn the trade from him.
 
In Filipino breadmaking, the traditions and techniques are learned from the head baker. An apprentice dives right into the job, learning the ways of the dough by observing, imitating and making the bread himself. The knowledge is passed down from one baker to the next; the important elements of the craft lives on.
The maestro makes pan de sal as he has learned from the maestro before him. Old recipes utilize the sponge and dough method: the sponge (starter dough) is made first, then mixed with the second set of ingredients to form the dough. To develop its structure and flavor, it is fermented for several hours on a wooden trough, known as a bangka. The bakers also knead the dough by hand before smoothing it by beating it on the side of the table.
 
When the dough is ready, it is formed into several elongated pieces resembling a log as thick as an arm. In classical breadmaking, this is simply “rolling the dough into a log.” Filipino bakers, however, make bastones, which is Spanish for “cane or walking stick.”
 
To form the baston, a large piece of dough is flattened into a rectangle—from one end, the edge is tucked and rolled inward in a slanted angle. Despite the slanted formation, the long, elongated dough is ready for cutting. The sign of a baston formed this way are the slanted lines on the surface of the dough.
The backbreaking technique is tedious; younger bakers choose to simply roll the dough into a log. The practice of kneading the dough by hand and beating it was later replaced with the convenience of industrial mixers.
 
Not for the maestro panadero. The process is repeated several times with the remaining dough. The bastones are then rolled in breadcrumbs on the barca or on the working table. Finally, it is cut into smaller pieces, 25 to 30 grams each, using a wooden cutter so that the cut edges refrain from sticking together. The pieces, dusted again in breadcrumbs, are arranged on a half-sheet pan with the cut side up for a final proofing. When it’s baked in the oven, the cut expands into the familiar pointed, leaf-shaped mark.
Newly-cut pan de sal dough gets its ‘singkit’ or ‘gatla’ mark on top by being cut with a wooden dough cutter (raspa na kahoy).
This mark also resembles the shape of the pili nut, itself native to the Philippines. We have seen this mark in varying widths on the pan de sal of many local panaderia: some narrow, wide, prominent, faint, even absent. Older panaderos refer to it as the singkit, Tagalog for “small eyes.” It is called gatlâ in some bakeries in Cavite City. It is not as requisite as, say, the angled cuts done on the tops of the French baguette, but the singkit or gatlâ completes the look of the traditional pan de sal.
 
A recipe for pan de sal recently appeared in American magazine Saveur, which was intended for American home bakers and inspired by the pan de sal that Filipino women brought to the after-church community meal. The photograph and illustration used showed a pan de sal that was round rather than oval. The distinctive mark was missing.
 
The culprit was the use of a knife, rather than the traditional wooden cutter used in the Filipino panaderia. The motion of the wooden cutter pressing down into the dough gives it an oval shape and its singkit. But this technique is known only within the trade—among the older generation of bakers. Without that crucial step, something is lost in translation.
 
It takes years of practice and patience; breadmakers produce hundreds of breads every single day. But that is how one becomes a master of the dough. The keepers of our tradition shape our breads with their capable hands, their imagination and craft. The panaderia is their domain. They carry our bread culture by the sweat of their brows and the strength of their hands, while our tastes dictate what they do with their masterpiece, the pan de sal.