Bread has been hard hit over the last decade or so. This humble mix of flour, water, salt and sometimes leavening has become the culprit of a million digestive crimes. Gluten is out, bread is the devil. But just as most things we love to love and hate to hate, bread is still the foremost culinary feature in almost every cuisine in the world. Even those intolerant to its yeasty charm will baulk at a freshly baked sourdough, a spongy Chinese bun, a crispy baguette, a gravy-soaked cornbread, nutty injera or a buttery naan. Bread is the cornerstone of modern humanity. It was one of the first things humans created after discovering fire and beer – but what does it have to do with architecture?
The first bread oven originated when some long-ago gourmet had the idea to overturn a clay pot onto hot coals. From there evolved numerous styles of ovens and thousands of recipes. The domed bread oven was a cousin of previous smaller contraptions developed all over the ancient world. As agricultural society grew along with self-sustaining families, so did the bread oven. While much of Europe used communal ovens, here in Ibiza every farming family had their own. Their voluptuous shapes pop up throughout the countryside like puffs of delicious fresh baked white bread.
The roots of the white domes lead back to the beginnings of the fertile crescent, which should be no surprise to regular readers of this blog. Many elements of the traditional Ibiza architecture stems from the ancient cultures of the Levant. The architecture of the local bread oven is not necessarily unique, unlike the farmhouses themselves, but the stories they contain most definitely are.
Bread was baked once a week and each family member received one loaf. If you ate yours before the week was up, you either went without or begged the rest of the household for a loan. Baking day would start early. The oven would be swept of ashes and debris, a carob and almond wood fire was stoked for at least two hours to fill the stone walls with a fierce and steady residual heat. A traditional baker of pan pagés employs a masa madre or sourdough starter as a leavening agent which customarily had been in the family for decades. When the dough is ready, a wet cloth is swiped over the hot stone to produce some humidity. The loaves are scooped up onto a wood paddle that slid effortlessly across the stone floor of the oven. It takes a refined skill to intuitively measure the temperature and cooking time – this was definitely analogue baking.
The bread itself, pan pagés, is designed to be hearty and long-lasting. Unusually, it doesn’t contain salt, and the crust is dark and leathery – able to withstand a morning wrapped in a tea towel and stuffed into the jacket pocket of a shepherd. The loaf is round, and the crumb is dense and even with a nutty flavour. It’s a good bread, hearty and satisfying – meeting its requirement as quick and easy nourishment. It’s perfect smothered in crushed tomato and salt for breakfast, with crumbled blood sausage, smeared with aioli before dinner or on a Sunday morning topped with various mouth-watering morsels for traditional montaditos.
Today, pan pagés is available commercially in most local supermarkets and stores, with some of Ibiza’s established traditional restaurants employing the old ways to produce this comforting staple and cornerstone of the island diet. Few of the old bread ovens are still used but luckily people respond nostalgically to their homely charm and retain them in their farmhouses. Some convert theirs into guest toilets while others building from scratch add one in for authenticity, and some leave them in their kitchens as an inanimate family member – sturdy and reliable in its century or more of service, producing what can only be described as a culinary hug.
While steaming loaves of freshly baked bread cooled on the kitchen counter, the bread oven absorbed the sorrows and joys of countless people, because bread is witness to everything. From family meals to late night snacks, to lonely pre-dawn breakfasts all the way to the rituals of many faiths, bread is always there – and long may the traditional ovens remain a feature in Ibiza’s fincas.