On a roll in Mozambique

By Sue Derwent Time of article published Mar 8, 2013

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Maputo - Along with peri-peri chicken, peri-peri prawns and Prego rolls, paõ is one of the many delicious reasons to visit Mozambique. There is a hardly a South African who has visited Mozambique who has not returned home with happy memories of the famous hot bread rolls called “Paõ” (short for Paõzinho), which can be bought early every morning on the side of the road or in any marketplace, in just about any village, no matter how remote, throughout the country.

Paõ are a delicious Mozambican version of Portuguese bread rolls, made by local artisan village bakers, in the simplest manner, in wood-fired ovens.

Although paõ was obviously introduced to Mozambique by the Portuguese colonisers, information on how it came to be made by hundreds of village bakers is hard to come by. And just as difficult to find is a sensible recipe for paõ. Even on the internet, most recipes call for ingredients such as margarine and sugar which, I am certain, would make pão substantially more expensive than it is.

A “Grande paõ”, the size of a small South African loaf of bread, is just R3, while a good sized bread roll, somewhat larger than a store-bought Portuguese roll is close to R1 (about 3 300 Meticals).

As luck would have it, a friend employs a Mozambican whose face lit up when I asked him if he knew anyone who could make paõ. He could, of course, and he would be delighted to teach me.

Somewhat dubiously, considering Sam speaks Portuguese and Zulu, while I speak neither, we started our “lesson”. I, like many people, believe that making bread is a bit tricky and technical. However, when you think of it, bread, in its many forms, has been a staple made by the poorest people in the poorest conditions, throughout the world, for centuries.

And so it was that Sam and I, with 1kg flour, a sachet of yeast, a teaspoon of salt and “some” water later, soon had our first batch of the most delicious hot, crusty pão with a soft, white, fluffy centre. It was the first time Sam had ever used an electric oven, and we were both delighted with our results.

All this experiment did though, was to make me more curious to see the real thing – which, of course, meant a trip to Mozambique.

Ponta do Ouro was the closest Mozambican village I could think of. It is a short – albeit tricky – 4x4 8km ride from the South African, KZN border post. Generally “Ponta” is where people go to swim with dolphins, deep-sea dive, eat prawns and peri-peri chicken, drink 2M beer, laze under palm trees and chill on the beach. But because Andy and I were on a mission to find the artisan bread-makers, we spent the afternoon pottering in and around Ponto asking about bakers.

We were finally directed to the marketplace and the “Padaria”, where three young men were perched on the broken steps outside a broken building surrounded by makeshift shacks.

With Andy’s fluent Zulu, a couple of Portuguese words, much laughter and hand waving, we discovered these were indeed our bakers. They told us the bread was finished for the day, but we should try “the guy around the corner”. After more happy confusion, we also gathered that if we returned at 3.30am the next day we could see how paõ was made. We headed back to the beachfront and a chicken Peri-Peri restaurant.

There was a full moon over the sea as we drove up the pot-holed road to the market at the designated time. Sounds of distant laughter and tinny music drifted over the rabbit warren of shacks as we stumbled between the deserted wooden huts.

The Padaria was quiet, but we followed sounds of wood chopping and, as it turns out, found Osvaldo, a 16-year-old baker (“the guy around the corner”) working with his friend inside a tiny, hot lean-to lit by the smallest candle.

Osvaldo dragged in huge logs to stoke the “oven”, a wonderful construction that looked like a primitive pizza oven-come-termite mound. The candle soon burnt out and the two bakers were left to work by the light of the moon and the coals from the oven. They make and sell about 60 to 100 rolls a day at their stall in the market.

Heading back to the Padaria, we found 30-year-old Maposse tumbling off the bottom rack of a shelf which appeared to double as his bed, while his two friends/apprentices, 27-year-old Atomimno and 17-year-old Calado, were already lugging bags of flour and water.

Maposse was the chief baker and after some crossover language and gesticulation, we discovered (we think) that he had trained with a baker in Maputo in his early twenties – or maybe it was that he learnt to bake 20 years ago?

Making artisan bread in these conditions is no small feat. The three young artisans bake and sell more than 600 loaves a day in a crumbling bakery with just one electric globe dangling on the end of a dodgy looking cable.

Ponta is humid and sweaty at the best of times, and with the wood-fire raging, even hotter.

They work 365 days a year without a break, waking in the tropical heat at 3.30am every morning to ensure the villagers can collect their daily bread on their way to work.

Huge logs of wood are dumped in the market square and must be carried, by hand, to the back of the padaria where it must be sawed, again by hand, to size, to fit the oven.

The 50kg sacks of flour and 25-litre water containers must also be carried by hand as vehicles cannot fit down the narrow, sandy alleys between the shacks. The dough is mixed and kneaded by hand in big, square plastic buckets. Bags of flour are lugged, water is splashed, sleeves are rolled, arms in the dough way past the elbow, backs are bent, sweat drips down, rhythms are set, and all is mixed. Dough is left to rise. Fire is stoked. Not a word is spoken. Just a nod here and there. Everyone knows his job.

Once ready, the dough, now looking like an enormously fat, white walrus – and just as alive – is slapped on to a big, floured, wooden table where it is then covered with an old flour sack and left to rise further.

Then an almost orchestral, rhythmic meditation begins as Maposse, using a makeshift wooden “cutter”, breaks off wads of dough which he forms into identically weighted and sized balls. Atomimno assists, while Calado continues with the next batch of dough mixing.

By the time they get to the end of one big walrus of dough, the rolls are ready to be rolled into sausage shapes. Maposse, still tapping out a rhythm, flings the dough in perfect arcs across to Atomimno who packs on to trays and trays on to racks.

The “loaves” are fed into the oven on a long plank of wood and about 15 minutes later, a warm bread smell seems to draw the first customers; regulars who stand patiently in a queue awaiting their golden crusty meal.

That morning they had to wait behind us.

Make your own:

Basic Pão (Sam’s recipe)

1kg flour

1 tsp salt

1 Tbs vinegar (optional – the Mozambicans didn’t use vinegar)

1 small sachet dry yeast

Enough water to make a sticky dough

1 Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until the dough is not so sticky (about 6 minutes).

2 Cover with dishtowel and leave to rise for about an hour.

3 Take the dough out of the bowl, knead with oiled or floured hands, cover and let rise a second time

4 Pre-heat oven to about 220ºC. It should be quite a hot oven.

5 Once dough has risen a second time, tip it out and start breaking off pieces and making them into fist-sized balls. Place them on a floured baking tray.

6 Slit each ball/roll across the top with a very sharp knife and sprinkle them with flour.

7 Once slightly risen again, place in hot oven for about 15 minutes. Once you can smell the bread, check to see if it is golden brown. If it is, take out a roll, knock it on the underside and if there is a hollow sound, the pao is ready to be taken out. - Sunday Tribune

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