By Cynthia Mills
Cuenca’s tradition of bread making began in the 1630s with the cultivation of wheat grown and milled along the Tomebamba River in the area that is now known as Todos Santos.
In the early 17th century, bread stores appeared around Iglesia Todos Santos, one of Cuenca’s first churches, and in the late 19th century, the Order of the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary began large-scale commercial baking. Their recipes are still used today.
One of Cuenca’s most successful bakeries, Todos Santos Panaderia, Mariano Cueva 4-101 and Calle Larga, has been owned and operated by Nicanor Wilson for 20 years. The emphasis of this family business is traditional wood-fired bread for panaderias throughout Cuenca.
“Horno de leña, imparts a unique smokey flavor to the bread,” says Wilson. His and other family-owned bakeries now offer both traditional and non-traditional bread. All are made by hand and without preservatives.
Panaderia Traditional, Calle Mariano Cueva 4-90 and Todos Santos, is defined by its history. According to the owner Angel Tenemea, his wood-burning oven, circa 1938, produces 300 loaves every 20 minutes for a total of 3,000 pieces a day.
One of the oldest operating wood-burning ovens in the city, the oven has a base of 130 centimeters and accommodates multiple pans of dough. The base of the dome-shaped oven is 1.3 meters and was built with the following layers: 10 centimeters of iron; 30 centimeters of cattle bones; 30 centimeters of broken glass; 20 centimeters of rock salt; and a layer of bricks.
The oven is heated to a temperature of 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Farenheit) using Eucalyptus. The masonry materials used in the construction help maintain the high temperatures.
All of the bread at Panaderia Traditional is handmade according to recipes that date from 1900 and handed down by Mercedes Vélez, a woman who devoted her life to traditional baking techniques. In addition to baked goods, the oven is used to roast meats according to the season and may include turkeys, pigs, and guinea pigs. Reservations for holiday roasts around Christmas and Carnival are highly suggested.
A recent addition to Cuenca’s bakery scene is Artesana, owned by Kelbert Bortone and his wife Mariana Gonzalaz, from Isla de Margarita, Venezuela. They established, Artesana, in 2016.
Mariana attended Iscuela Culinaria Caribe (ICTC) on Isla de Margarita to receive her degree in artisanal baking. Although the curriculum included cooking with preservatives, Mariana does not use them in her baking. She prefers to bake her bread with high-protein content from seeds and grains. Her technique is focused on the European tradition and styles brought to Venezuela by migrants who arrived after World War II.
Artesana bakes about 40 different products a day. In addition to her standard recipes, Mariana has added to her repertoire by modifying family recipes from other countries, as well.