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by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

There is nothing more enticing than the smell of fresh baked bread coming out of the oven. When it’s warm, bread needs nothing else and it’s a pleasure to eat it just like that even though people keep telling you that if you indulge you will put on weight and your cholesterol will hit the roof. Bread is definitely one of those temptations that are hard to resist.

In Havana one street corner became famous just because of the marvelous quality of the bread from an establishment there, the hundred-year-old Toyo bakery. Although it has had its ups and downs, these days it is not just a bakery but produces a wide range of sweet goods in an attempt to bring back to life what the store once was.

It is a fact that bakers have been essential figures in Cuban popular lore, joining barbers and the street vendors calling out their wares from their push-carts. But bakers are important for life: if there were no bakers, life would be incomplete; it just wouldn’t be the same. What is more vital than having one’s daily bread on the table, day after day?

Much hard work and perseverance lies behind that piece of daily bread. From the early stages of mixing the dough right up to the finished product, many hands collaborate in the process. It’s a hard job because bakers spend a lot of time standing and they have to withstand some uncomfortably high temperatures. They don’t have many days off, not even when hurricanes are passing through. In fact, during such times when nature threatens, bakers find themselves working extra-long hours to produce bread for a population that may not have electricity in their homes.

It’s a seven-day, 24-hour operation that never closes, whether it’s Christmas or New Year’s Eve. And the work is done the old-fashioned way, rolling the dough and loading the loaves into the oven by hand.

While most of us are still asleep, bakers are already hard at work. Bakers are probably the most dynamic group of people in Cuba. While they work, they are discussing soccer, baseball, the Grammy awards and just about any other current events topic.

As the 21st century began, bread supplies in Cuba were being assured by two basic enterprises. The first one was the “Cadena Cubana del Pan” (Cuban Bread Chain) which brought together hundreds of bakeries all over the Island. These bakeries work non-stop, 24/7, to turn out different varieties of hard crust breads, round loaves, cylinder loaves, rolls and whole wheat. They also work to produce bread for school snacks at the basic secondary education level.

According to surveys, Habaneros prefer braided hard crust bread and soft bread. On the basis of information published by the Bread Chain, every year they produce approximately 50,000 tons of bread.

Also playing an important part in the chain that makes bread a reality are the workers belonging to the “Empresa Cubana de Molinería” (Cuban Milling Company). They are the ones milling imported wheat into flour and making sure that there is lard and yeast for the elaboration of bread.

Two other bakeries selling bread and pastries, this time in convertible currency, are Sylvain and Doñaneli. The latter is particularly well-known for its range of delicious breads and baked desserts. And we cannot forget San José Bakery on Obispo St. in Old Havana. The queues there are long, made up of both Cubans and tourists who have learned to appreciate their quality baked goods and affordable prices.

In this second decade of the new century the private sector has joined in the production of baked goods. Many restaurants are baking their own bread as a way to establish a distinctive house style. And all around the city, there are new bakeries springing up. My absolute favorite is the simply superb El Biky. Open daily from 8am to midnight, it is centrally located at Calle Infanta No. 412 entre San Lázaro y Concordia, just six blocks away from the Habana Libre Hotel.

The result of all this activity is great news for us Cubans. The natural competition arising between the government and private sector ends up demanding greater quality and variety from them both.

Thanks to LaHabana.com for this article.

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