On a recent morning, a dozen customers crowded the counter at Maria’s Alemania Bakery and Restaurant on the corner of Hermano Miguel and Mariscal Sucre in Cuenca, waiting to place their orders. Among the group, which included Cuencanos, North American expats and two Argentinian backpackers, were a German couple, Karl and Heidi Holtz.
“We just discovered Maria’s and love it,” says Karl, who is in Cuenca to study Spanish. “We tried several other bakeries, so we were thrilled to find one that’s German. For us, it’s the best and it makes us feel right at home.”
Behind the counter, Maria Cristina Glanzmann, who owns the bakery with her German-born husband, Tarsa Wilhelm Ben Ahmida, hurries to fill orders. Maria, a Cuenca native with a German father, says the brisk business is a welcome change from the day when she opened the shop in November 2009. “Because the local people had never tasted German baking I had to give away samples. Now, they seem to like it and keep coming back for more.”
Introducing the locals to a new taste was only one of the challenges that Maria and Tarsa faced when they opened the bakery. After shipping their ovens and pastry-making equipment to Ecuador from Germany, Tarsa was faced with two daunting tasks. First, he had to locate ingredients. Second, he had to master high-altitude baking. To complicate matters, Tarsa says, “We were starting from scratch, in a new language and new culture. It was difficult.”
Even after two years of practice, he still struggles to overcome a number of challenges. “Because of Cuenca’s altitude and weather, some of the bread, especially the sourdough, tends to be much more crumbly than it was in Germany. I keep experimenting.”
The selection of baked goods at Maria’s is impressive. There are 30 kinds of breads, in large and small loaves, including pumpkin, onion, olive, carrot, fitness and cottage cheese. Among the pastries, many the size of hubcaps, there are 60 choices, including peach, pineapple, kiwi, canela, pumpkin, apple, passion fruit, chocolate, cherry and pear.
In addition to bread and pastries, Maria’s also serves baked entrées, including pizza, lasagna, hamburgers, and vegetable and meat crepes. Its almuerzo fills the atrium dining area, behind the bakery.
Everything at Maria’s is fresh, baked by Tarsa and an assistant only a few hours before it’s sold; they work from midnight to daylight on weekdays.
Tarsa grew up in March-Buchheim, Germany. His family was in the bakery business and he began learning the trade early: He baked his first cake when he was nine years old. “Because it was all around me, it was natural for me to bake. It was in my blood.”
After finishing public school, Tarsa studied for two years to earn his master chef certificate, which is displayed on the wall in the bakery’s front room. Following three more years of training, he earned a general gastronomy degree. He took over the family bakery in 1986 and ran it for 10 years until he accepted a management position with MacDonald’s.
Tarsa and Maria met in 1997 in Herbolzheim, north of Freiburg, while she was visiting relatives. “After I met Tarsa, my family visit lasted ten years,” Maria says. Maria and Tarsa’s sons, eleven-year-old Erik and ten-year-old Alex, both born in Germany, and four-month old daughter Rebeca. The boys are already showing signs of joining the family trade. “I know how to bake pizza,” says Erik. Alex adds, “My favorite is salami.”
The bakeries of Cuenca
Maria’s may be the highlight of Cuenca bakeries but baked goods are as common in the city as taxicabs and roundabouts. Nearly every block in El Centro has one, and every other block in the greater metropolitan area, boasts a “panadería” and “pastelería.” The kinds of bread loaves sold at Maria’s, which Europeans and North Americans are familiar with, are uncommon in Cuenca, though supermarkets here sell fresh-baked loaves, as well as the rolls, croissants, pastries, cakes, and other internationally recognizable products.
A new bakery –as well as coffee shop– worth special mention is Popacuchu Café y Pastelería in Condominio Cuatro Rios, next to GringoTree, at the corner of Primero de Mayo and Las Americas. Only in its fourth month of operation, it has earned a large clientele among expats.
Cakes are also sold by the major ice-cream-and- sandwich shops, such as Frutilado, Tutto Fredo, Monte Bianco, Panesa and Popacuchu.
It’s the mom-and-pop shops that are the bread and butter, so to speak, of the Cuenca bakery scene. At some, you point to what you want and the proprietors make the selections for you. But at most, you grab a wicker basket when you walk in the door, locate a pair of tongs scattered around the store, make your selections from among individual-sized rolls and croissants, many with fillings of cheese, chocolate, and butter.
The cachos, or crescent rolls, are popular, with their many thin layers of dough rolled with margarine or butter, like a Danish pastry. Many bakeries also sell crispy meat- or cheese-filled empanadas and potato-and-cheese pancakes, called llapingachos.
A notable recent entry on the baking scene is Rich Westcott’s Not So Schmart Bagels. Rich, who celebrated his first year in business in February as the only bagel maker in Cuenca, does not have a shop but his bagels and bagel sandwiches are available at better restaurants throughout the city.
Calle Hermano Miguel 8 – 13 at Sucre
Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday
Credit: Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition; Photo caption: The wide variety of goods in Maria´s showroom; Owners Maria Glanzmann and Tarsa Wilhelm Ben Ahmida: Maria’s almuerzo dining area; Rich Westcott of “Not so Schmart Bagels.”