Thursday, August 30, 2012

Brazil's Daily Bread - Pão Francês

When Brazilians ask for "o pão nosso de cada dia" (our daily bread) as part of the Lord's Prayer, the vast majority of them are most likely thinking not of a loaf of sliced white bread, nor of a heavy rye bread. Not a wholesome 8-grain bread or a baguette, either. The image they have in their mind's eye is of a roll that fits neatly in the palm of a hand with a crisp brown crust and a light-as-air crumb inside. The bread that is generically known in Brazil as pão francês, or French bread.

For most Brazilians, pão francês IS in fact their daily bread. It is almost universally eaten at breakfast and often as part of a snack or a light supper, though almost never as part of almoço, the main meal of the day, eaten at lunch time. The typical Brazilian home breakfast is fruit or fruit juice, coffee, and one or two pieces of pão francês, either eaten simply slathered with margarine or cream cheese, or made into a sandwich with a slice of cheese or ham. At night, Brazilians eat pão francês as part of a supper that is smaller than standard North American or European dinner, again served with margarine or cream cheese, or made into a cheese or ham sandwich.

This pattern of eating pão francês every day dates from the early 20th Century in Brazil, when the style of bread we call French became known to Brazilian troops in Europe during the First World War, and was brought home with them when they returned from the battlefield. At that time, crusty rolls were more popular in France than long loaves (baguettes) and to this day, rolls are preferred in Brazil. Over the course of time the original French recipe became Brazilianized, and today most bakeries sell pão francês that has a pinch of sugar and a touch of butter or some other fat added to the original recipe for French bread dough.

Brazilians have come to prefer a roll that has a very airy and fluffy inside - pão francês is much less dense than French bread found in France or other countries. What is most important to Brazilians is the crust - it must be nicely browned and extremely crunchy. Brazilians love a roll that breaks into small sharp flakes when cut into. Because bread crusts do not remain crisp in Brazil's hot and often humid climate, Brazilians demand the freshest of bread on their tables. Many families buy bread from a supermarket or a bakery more than once a day - once for the breakfast bread, and again later in the day for afternoon or evening eating. Bakeries, by customer demand, are required to have fresh bread coming out of their ovens multiple times a day, so that when a customer comes in the bread is still warm from the oven. One bakery in Fortaleza that is a favorite of ours advertises that they offer 40 different bakings per day in order to assure the freshest possible bread.

Although Brazilians are united in their love for pão francês, the name that they call it varies tremendously from regions to region. For example, in São Paulo it's pãozinho (little bread), while in Ceará (home of Flavors of Brazil, it's called a carioquinha (little girl from Rio). Elsewhere, such varied names as pão massa grossa (thick dough bread - in Maranhão), cacetinho (little stick - in Rio Grande do Sul and Bahia), pão careca (bald bread - in Pará), média (medium - in the port of Santos), filão (long one - in Sergipe), pão aguado (watered bread - in Paraíba), or pão de sal (salt bread - in numerous regions) are all applied to this simple basic roll. It's a task for a foreigner travelling around Brazil to find out what to order in the bakery from one location to the next. Even Brazilians are confused when they travel domestically and find that the name they use at home is unheard of at their destination.

Next post, as a special treat for homesick expat Brazilians, we'll post a recipe for Brazilian-style pão francês for making in a home oven.

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