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The day starts very early for Don Ponciano Díaz and his wife, Sara. It’s 5 a.m., and they’re already at their bakery, Panadería Díaz, which is located in San Antonio La Isla, some 73 kilometers from Mexico City. One pale incandescent bulb lights the space, and the large wooden worktable is empty – but not for long.

They run through a checklist of everything they will need for the day’s bread baking: water, flour, yeast, manteca (vegetable shortening), salt, sugar, eggs, butter and baking powder. The bread trays have to be prepared in advance, some with lard, others with flour. Molds, wooden sticks, knives, buckets, pitchers, pewter mugs and other utensils are all at the ready.

Don Ponciano opened Panadería Díaz in 1994, but he’s been baking for much longer. Starting at the age of 10, he was playing with the dough in his father’s bakery. In 1958, Jerónimo Díaz Garduño, his father, built a wood-fired oven in his house in San Juan La Isla, a smaller village close to San Antonio La Isla, and began selling his own bread. It is the same oven, with slight modifications, that Don Ponciano’s brother, Edmundo, who took over the bakery from their father, still uses today. Don Ponciano learned the oficio (“job”) at his father’s side, and after many years he decided to strike out on his own.

Back at the table, Don Ponciano empties out almost a full sack of flour – the magic is about to begin. Although every type of pan dulce requires a special preparation, they all have this dough as their base. After using his hands and arms to build a rectangle of flour, he pours the ingredients in the empty center. Amazingly, this is all done by touch, sight and feel – Don Ponciano doesn’t use scales. Little by little, he begins creating the masa (dough).

Around this point, his son José Juan arrives. The 29-year-old is the new generation. His wife, Janet, is here to help as well, so now there are eight hands at the table. They work so quickly and in such coordinated movements that it’s obvious they have been doing this for quite a long time. They continue to work as we chat, never missing a beat.

His wife, Janet, is here to help as well, so now there are eight hands at the table.

“To give dough the right timing – that’s the secret,” Don Ponciano says. “We start making the pan dulce [sweet bread] first, and bolillo [a type of savory bread] comes at the end.” The amount of dough continues to expand until it’s taking up almost half the table, which Don Ponciano built himself 25 years ago.

José Juan rattles off all the different pan dulces they can make – the list is extensive: “Today we are going to make conchas, violines, quesadillas, tortugas, pastelitos, banderillas, donas, polvorones, ojos de pancha, tacos and ojos; but we can also make cemitas, pastel de pañuelo, cuernos, chamucos, alas, tostadas, orejas, rehiletes, gusanos, pechugas, pan de muerto, hojaldras, sapos, piedras, bisquets and more.”

Each type of bread requires a specific kind of masa preparation. That’s why Don Ponciano’s next step is portioning out the dough. Doña Sara and José Juan work and shape the dough, which Janet then places on trays. Some need an extra flourish, like an egg wash or a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Before going into the oven, the bread has to rest for a while.

Nobody uses scales or timers – it’s all based on experience. The way they work and move is hypnotizing. The production of pan dulce is almost done, so now Don Ponciano turns his attention to the large amount of masa left for bolillos. There is a dialogue between dough and man: by kneading and rolling and smashing it over and over, he finally reaches the ideal consistency. All of a sudden he starts making a large, thick roll, which is then handled by Doña Sara and José Juan, who split it into smaller pieces of masa. Those pieces are rolled and reshaped some more. In the meantime, Don Ponciano turns on a gas oven, a more recent addition to the bakery.

“Many years ago there used to be a great demand, and we bought the gas oven and a mixer,” says Don Ponciano. “But still, everything we do is by hand,” he adds.

Family businesses like Panadería Díaz are common in Mexico. However, nowadays many young people have better opportunities and access to education. Thanks to the money saved from their fathers’ lifelong oficios, they can often go abroad in search of “a better life,” whatever that means in today’s world.

Others, like José Juan, after confronting the lack of opportunities in the outside world, have come back home to help their parents. “I’m planning to build a wood-fired oven, like my grandparents. There is nothing like the flavor it gives to bread!” says José Juan while he works the masa.

“During Día de Muertos, we have to work 24/7 to satisfy the demand. It’s crazy! We have to eat by the table, no chance to rest at all. But we love this job,” says Doña Sara. “The hardest thing is to wake up, but once you start you don’t have time to get bored, and time goes fast,” she adds.

Marco Antonio, another of Don Ponciano’s sons, usually distributes the bread, fresh from the oven, to convenience stores and stands around town. On this morning, as the last bolillos are being made, he invites us to join him as he drops off the early deliveries around town.

We also pay a visit to his uncle’s wood-fired oven in San Juan La Isla, where many of his cousins work. It’s a nice drive among green fields, passing a river and a former hacienda along the way. As we pull up in his car, it’s clear that this panadería founded by Don Ponciano’s father is very popular: The first neighbors have arrived, on foot, on bicycle or by car. Even though the morning is chilly, they don’t mind waiting in line for this delicious bread.

As vendors fill their baskets with sweet-smelling bread, Jorge, Marco Antonio’s cousin, uses a very large, thin peel to transfer bread in and out of the oven. He sets six or eight in a row on the wooden plank. Then, with a movement so quick it barely registers, he cuts every loaf from top to bottom using a razor blade. Next, he glances at the interior of the oven through the little door and then, with another quick movement, drops the bolillos inside, right where he intended them to go.

“Tabla!” he shouts, meaning that he needs another large wooden plank topped with two rows of bolillos, ready for the oven. Two young panaderos quickly bring a full peel, and the process begins again. Both panaderías operate like orchestras, where everyone plays his part.

Marco Antonio hands us a bolillo fresh from the oven. Outside it has a golden color and a crispy texture. Inside the white dough is incredibly delicate. Taking a bite, we find the sweet and salt to be in perfect balance. It tastes like the bread from our first communion – something divine.

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Published on July 15, 2020

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