Pan Dulce – A Sweet Tradition

In my previous post, I focused on the history of crops and animal food sources in Central Mexico (Mexico City, and surrounding areas) coming directly from the lakes and canals of the valley, but the presence of these bodies of water at the onset of the Spanish colonial era (1521), also provided with rich agricultural land around them.  I have mentioned before a black Portuguese man named Juan Garrido, one of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’s servants, who is accredited with the introduction of wheat as a crop in Mexico, allegedly starting with just three grains of wheat that he found mixed with rice in a sac; according to the story, Garrido managed to sprout at least one grain, and his experimental approach granted more seed, which in turn produced larger crops of wheat in his fertile parcels by the lakes, in Texcoco (today a city in Estado de México).   By 1534, Texcoco, along with areas in the nearby state of Puebla, had become well established producers of wheat as a grain crop, which partially displaced the native corn, and amaranth (a pseudo-grain).

Sometime around the 9th century, sugar had been introduced to Spain, during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsula.  In the 16th century, in the Spanish colonies, although pastries (and bread in general), were geared to the upper and governing classes, once the Spaniards established sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, and later Mexico, it became a commodity that slowly replaced the use of local honey, and expanded the production and consumption of sweet confections.  Just a few decades later, convents and Spanish homes were producing loaves of bread, and other savoury, and sweet, baked goods, following traditional Spanish recipes, even before panaderías (bakeries) had been created in the New Spain.

Texcoco and Puebla naturally began a baking tradition not long after that, taking advantage of the ingredients now at hand.  Perhaps the first example of the displacement of native ingredients, in favour of introduced ones, is the cocol, a flat bread with a rhomboidal shape, that in pre-Hispanic times was probably cooked over a fire, and was made with ground corn, honey and seeds.  The recipe evolved during colonial times to the current version, baked in an oven, and made with wheat flour, piloncillo (a type of raw sugar) and anise seed.  The presence of pre-Hispanic honey, or colonial piloncillo, likely qualifies this humble baked good as the first Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread):   

Modern cocoles (from Wiki Commons)

For the same reason, the once bitter ceremonial cocoa elixir of the Mexica (Aztec) was transformed into hot chocolate, with the addition of sugar, and it was just a matter of time before a piece of pan dulce  was dunked in the foamy beverage, to become a staple at the Mexican table:

concha in hot chocolate

Ghribia or Ghoriba (sugary shortbread treats, similar to Greek kourabiedes) arrived in Spain via North Africa, also during the Moorish occupation, which gave origin to the Andalusian polvorones (a powdery cookie with almonds), and mantecados (usually more cookie-like).  Mexican bakers, particularly in Puebla, reproduced these Spanish baked goods, again adapting recipes to local ingredient availability and taste, to create Mexican versions of polvorones (popularly known as Mexican wedding cookies, photo below, left) sometimes made with peanuts instead of almonds, for example, and mantecados (which are also called polvorones in Mexico, photo below, centre), with chocolate, or vanilla flavours, both ingredients Mexican in origin (photo below, right):

Assorted Mexican polvorones (2020)
Tri-colour Mexican polvorones (2019)

Phyllo pastry from the Middle East was also known and used in Spanish cuisine, and in Mexico, was the inspiration for some of the most traditional pan dulce  recipes, such as campechanasa brittle multi-layered pastry.  Bakeries specializing in sweet breads were called bizcocherías in Mexico, and are referenced as early as 1554.  During the entire colonial period, bakeries in Mexico coalesced as a heavily regulated trade, in which all types of bread had to conform to set standards, and buns and loaves were marked with the bakery’s seal for source identification, and further control; hard labour, such as kneading dough for up to 14 hours a day, was mostly performed by enslaved indigenous people, or even convicts. 

Although these poor conditions continued for baking workers well into the turn of the 20th century, once Mexico became an independent nation in 1821, it is well documented that more businesses from other European countries arrived in Mexico, particularly from France and the Basque Region (Vasconia), gradually mauling the old ways in favour of more of a family trade tradition, in which baking skills were transmitted from generation to generation.  This trade became so important, that even the first French intervention in Mexico, in 1838, is referred to as “The Pastry War” (Guerra de los pasteles, or Primera intervención francesa en México), because it began under allegations of Mexico’s government unpaid debt to French businesses and in particular, a pastry store in Mexico City.  The Second French intervention, which interrupted the presidency of Mexican Benito Juárez with the short reign of Maximilian and Charlotte of Habsburg (1964-1967), contributed to the introduction of more sweet baked goods from French and Austrian cuisines, and delicacies such as the vol au vent, which evolved and has become extremely popular as the volován,  in the Mexican port of Veracruz.

On their website, La Vasconia”, a bakery still operating in downtown Mexico City (Tacuba 73 esq. Palma Colonia Centro, Cuauhtémoc, CDMX), lists the year of 1870 as their starting point, and by the end of that century, hundreds of bakeries were in business in Mexico City alone.  The preference for everything European by Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz during his rule, known as El Porfiriato (1884-1910), certainly helped this flourishment, and cemented the wide acceptance of Mexican versions of the French brioche (pan de yema), croissants (cuernitos), and puff pastry (pasta de hojaldre), and the proliferation of European-style tea parlours and bakeries, such as “El Globo” (founded in 1884 by an Italian family).  

The Mexican Revolution (starting on November 20, 1910), put an end to El Porfiriato, and allowed major changes of food supply, and employment conditions, in general, and in the bread trade in particular.  By the mid 20th century, industrialization and automation of baking processes were a reality; since then, Mexican breads and sweet baked goods have become well known in other countries, with Mexican company Grupo Bimbo™, founded in 1943, being the largest producer of baked products in the world:

In spite of modernization, many Mexican bakeries and families continue to make everyday, and artisan pan dulce, trying to preserve the traditions and flavours from the past; on the other hand, young generations are innovating with different ingredients and techniques, to create the Mexican bread traditions of the future.

So far, I have posted only about a handful of examples of Mexican sweet breads, but I am both cleaning the cobwebs off old recipe books, and searching the web (pun intended, hehe), to find more recipes, and keep adding to my collection, since there are hundreds of varieties of pan dulce (click on images below, for full stories and recipes): 

6 thoughts on “Pan Dulce – A Sweet Tradition

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