Yes, I chose to travel to Provesende in the Alto Douro region of Portugal because of stories of its bakery. I am always on the hunt for authentic experiences. So, the idea of a small village bakery operating much the same as for the past half century particularly attracted me.
It’s a famous wine region too
Now, I’ve visited a few (maybe more than a few) regions of the world for the purposes of tasting wine. But for the first time, I travelled somewhere just to taste the bread. Admittedly, the bakery’s location in a winemaking village in an historic wine region may have added to the appeal.
The Alto Douro region, best known for port wine, lies in the far north-east corner of Portugal. The Douro River flows from the region, through the mountains down to Porto on the coast. In past times, the river acted as a conveyor belt for the local drop, which landed in Porto and then travelled on to Britain. Today, the Douro river ferries travellers through pastoral landscapes aboard modern ships in total luxury.
Back in the 3rd or 4th Century AD at the end of the Roman empire, men shaped the Douro landscape. This now World Heritage listed upper Douro region, was sculpted for the purpose of growing wine. They scraped the rocky ground and built terraces so the vines could absorb energy from the sun. The history of winemaking in the region dates back more than 2000 years with the Church helping to establish the industry.
The winemaking village of Provesende
We stayed in a traditional winemaking village called Provesende. This isolated village, seemingly untouched by the outside world, is no doubt helped by the hair-raising roads required to get there. Our time there involved so many quaint features and stories (see also ‘The five o’clock deadline’). But the story of the Provesende bakery qualifies as both memorable and an authentic experience.
I knew the bakery’s location as the main square. So on the evening we arrived, I searched high and low. Nothing – or rather nada. I did find an interesting Baroque granite fountain though. Dating from 1755, the fountain took pride of place in front of an amazing view down the valley. A nearby café bar, closed up tight for the night, advertised its business with wine barrel planters.
But what’s the address?
“Oh well,” I thought, “I know what time the bakery opens, I’ll just come back then.” The next morning as the clock in the church tower chimed eight times, I returned to the village square. A stream of women and one lone man made their way to an unremarkable and completely un-signposted building. A building situated just to the right of previously mentioned the fountain.
The smell of warm, freshly cooked bread wafting through the village streets drew me closer. Inside, I joined the other customers crowded into a dark, basic room. The only light came from a single lonely bulb. The weak early morning light spilled through a narrow doorway. The women greeted each other and chattered among themselves. Good naturedly they pushed towards the one bench separating them from their bread.
Getting the goods
A woman, indistinguishable from all the others, except for her position standing behind the counter handed each customer a loaf of golden coloured bread. In exchange, she received a few coins, tossing them into an old tin before moving onto the next customer. Two wooden boxes, bulging with the yellowish, round parcels of goodness yielded one special loaf chosen carefully for each customer. This simple bakery offered only one product.
I watched as the loaf passed from one pair of hands to another, each woman quickly wrapping it in her tea towel ready for the journey home. Sometimes they exchanged a quick remark or acknowledgement but rushed through the niceties as the press of customers added to the urgency of the exchange. Later I learned that the baker made only a certain number of loaves each day, and once sold, no more were available. Then I understood the press of people and the slight air of anxiousness that permeated those moments before purchase.
2 loaves please
My turn came and I signed that I wanted 2 loaves. Disturbingly, the woman walked into a back room to get my bread. Had I made a mistake? Filling everyone else’s orders required only grabbing a loaf from the nearby box. Well, I am happy to report dear reader, that the baker’s wife fulfilled my order with loaves of warm bread!
I held out my hand with several coins realising that I had no idea what the bread might cost. The bakery contained no signs. With only one product to sell, there didn’t seem to be much point. After all, this shop didn’t even advertise its name – Padaria Fatima.
The woman behind the counter, took a surprisingly small number of coins, gave me a quick, shy smile, and moved on to her next customer. I clutched my two warm loaves carefully in my arms, having neglected to bring a tea towel, rushing home along the cobbled stone street to our accommodation.
I had the greatest prize. Not only had I found the bakery, but I had also got the fresh bread, but no ordinary bread, my special broa. A daily staple of Portuguese life, the broa uses locally sourced cornmeal as well as some wheat flour and yeast. For centuries, the broa regularly accompanied meals at Portuguese dinner tables.
I travelled a long way to find this bread, struggled to find the bakery and make my purchase. My prize – a fresh and warm broa, just baked in a wood fired oven in a decade’s old bakery on the edge of the main square and perfect to eat.
The address? You can’t miss it, just follow the smell, drawing the crowd in, right next to the fountain with the view down the valley.