Finding myself about two leagues from Seville, in the picturesque village of Alcala de Guadaira, but commonly called Alcala de los Panaderos (or bakers), as almost all the bread consumed in Seville is made there, I determined to learn how it was made. No traveller who visits the south of Spain ever fails to remark, “How delicious the bread is!” It is white as snow, close as cake, and yet very light: the flavour is most delicious, for the wheat is good and pure, and the bread well kneaded.
As practical demonstration is better than hearsay or theory, I would not content myself with the description of the process of bread-making, but went to the house of a baker, whose pretty wife and daughter I had often stopped to look at as they were sorting the wheat, seated on very low stools in the porch of their house.
It was a pretty picture: their dark sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and snowy teeth; their hair always beautifully dressed, and ornamented with natural flowers from their little garden in the background; their bright-coloured neckerchiefs rolled in at the top, showing the neck; their cotton gowns with short sleeves; their hands scrupulously clean, and so small that many an aristocratic dame might have envied them; surrounded by large round panniers filled with wheat, which they took out a handful at a time, sorting it most carefully and expeditiously, and throwing every defective grain in another basket.
When this is done, the wheat is ground between two large circular stones, in the way it was ground in Egypt 2000 years ago, the rotary motion being given by a blindfolded mule, which paces round and round with untiring patience, a bell being attached to his neck, which as long as he is in movement tinkles on; and when it stops he is urged to his duty by the shout of “arre, mula,” from some one within hearing.
When ground, the wheat is sifted through three sieves, the last being so fine that only the pure flour can pass through it; it is of a pale apricot colour.
The bread is made of an evening; and after sunset I returned to the baker’s, and watched his pretty wife first weigh the flour, and then mix it with only just sufficient water, mixed with a little salt, to make it into dough. A very small quantity of leaven is added.
The Scripture says, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump;” but in England, to avoid the trouble of kneading, they put as much leaven, or yeast, in one batch of household bread, as in Spain would last them a week for the six or eight donkey loads of bread they send every night from their oven.
When the dough was made it was put in sacks, and carried on the donkeys’ backs to the oven in the centre of the village, So as to bake it immediately it is kneaded. On arriving there, the dough was divided into portions weighing three pounds each. Two long narrow wooden tables on trussels were then placed down the room, and, to my surprise, about twenty men came in and ranged themselves on one side of the tables. A lump of dough was handed to the nearest, which he commenced kneading and knocking about with all his might for about three or four minutes, and then passed it to his neighbour, who did the same, and so on successively until all had kneaded it, when it was as soft as new putty, and ready for the oven. Of course, as soon as the first baker hands the loaf to his neighbour, another is given to him, and so on till the whole quantity of dough is successively kneaded by them all.
The baker’s wife and daughters shape them for the oven. Some of the loaves are divided into many smaller ones, chiefly of these shapes, and immediately baked. The ovens are very large, and not heated by fires under them; but a quantity of twigs of the herbs of sweet marjoram and thyme, which cover the hills in great profusion, are put in the oven and ignited. They heat the oven to any extent required; and as the bread gets baked the oven gets gradually colder, so the bread is never burned.
Oh, if our English bakers would but use less yeast, and knead their bread more, and not adulterate the flour, how many a heartburn and fit of indigestion they might prevent! Bread would then be the staff of life, as Providence intended it to be!
They knead the bread in Spain with such force that the palm of the hand and the second joints of the baker’s fingers are covered with corns; and it so affects the chest, that they cannot work for more than two hours at a time. They can be heard from some distance as they give a kind of guttural sound (ha, ha) as they work, which they say eases the chest. Our sailors have the same fancy when hoisting a sail.
I have kept a small loaf of Spanish bread for several months in a dry place, and then immersed it in boiling water and re-baked it, and I can assure my readers, that it was neither musty nor sour.