Why I’m in love with Mexican pan dulce

Pan Dulce Santiago Tianguistenco

A bread cart in Santiago Tianguistenco, Estado de México, in 2013.

I am pained when I walk by a bakery in Mexico and can’t go inside.

It’s like going to a shoe store for me — I want to look at every single piece and wonder if maybe it’s my type. I usually stick to conchas because I’m obsessed, but there are plenty others I like too: the campechanas topped with burnt sugar that remind me of the best, crispiest pie crust; the puerquitos that taste like piloncillo and molasses; the cocoles, lightly sweet and sprinkled with anise seeds, which taste just about perfect with a cup of coffee.

Mexico’s history with breadmaking dates to the beginning of the Spanish Conquest, when, according to Spanish chroniclers, a freed slave named Juan Garrido — one of the first black men in Mexico — planted the first wheat seeds, which had been accidentally included in sacks of rice. The first wheat mill opened in Mexico in 1525. Over the course of a few centuries, bread consumption grew slowly, until eventually, in the 19th century, it became present on most tables next to tortillas.

According to CANAINPA, Mexico’s largest union group for bread makers, there are currently more than 700 types of bread registered in the country. Another article I’ve read places the number of unique Mexican sweet breads at 1,200 (!), with savory breads numbering 400. Interestingly, as CANAINPA’s site notes, the modern panadería — a place where each customer grabs a set of tongs, and serves herself — did not exist until the 1950′s. Before that, Mexican bakeries kept the bread behind glass display cases.

If I’m being honest, most breads I’ve eaten at neighborhood bakeries in Mexico City look beautiful but don’t taste like much. I’ve eaten the best bread in pueblos, or at nicer restaurants like El Cardenal that use good-quality ingredients. I think change is coming, though. More and more of Mexico’s high-class food scene has embraced typical Mexican ingredients; surely recognizing traditional breads will not be far behind.

Here are some of my favorite pan dulce photos from my archives. Feel free to share your favorite type of pan dulce with me in the comments!

For more on Mexican pan dulce:

  • The Nuestro Pan Dulce blog catalogs different pieces of Mexican sweet bread en español, and it’s highly worth a visit to begin learning how to tell these breads apart.
  • My favorite Mexican food experts, Yuri de Gortari and Edmundo Escamilla, made a great video that showcases a local Mexico City bakery and talks about the history of wheat in the country. (You can also hear the gas guy shouting “Gaaas!” in the background around the four-minute mark.)
  • No mention of pan dulce would be complete without the story of my old encounter with the bike-riding pan dulce vendor (complete with audio!) in my former neighborhood.

My sources for this article:
1. El Pan Nuestro de Cada Día — Sonia Iglesias y Cabrera, Samuel Salinas Álvarez (CANAINPA 1997)
2. “Saborean Mexicanos el Día Del Pan” — Notimex, El Universal, Oct. 15, 2005

Bread outside a market in Puebla. You don't generally see the pink-sugar variety in DF.

Bread outside a market in Puebla. You don’t generally see the pink-sugar variety in DF.

Sweet rolls in Tenancingo, Estado de México.

Sweet rolls in Tenancingo, Estado de México.

A bucket of pan dulce at a roadside stand between Mexico City and Puebla.

A bucket of pan dulce at a roadside stand between Mexico City and Puebla.

A basket of sweet bread in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

A basket of sweet bread in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

Cake inside a bakery in San Luís Potosí.

Cake inside a bakery in San Luís Potosí.

Conchas in San Luís Potosí.

Conchas in San Luís Potosí.

Lightly sweet pan dulce in a fonda in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.

Lightly sweet pan dulce in a fonda in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.

A market in Oaxaca City, 2012.

A market in Oaxaca City, 2012.

Vanilla and chocolate conchas, among other items, in a market in Oaxaca.

Vanilla and chocolate conchas, among other items, in a market in Oaxaca.

Cheesy pan de Zacatlán at Puebla's Mole Festival in 2012.

Cheesy pan de Zacatlán at Puebla’s Mole Festival in 2012.

A pan dulce cart in the Centro Histórico, Mexico City.

A pan dulce cart in the Centro Histórico, Mexico City.

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6 Responses to “Why I’m in love with Mexican pan dulce”
  1. JoeEB

    Thanks! Rico

  2. Cindy

    Ojo De toro is my favorite!

  3. Don Cuevas

    Beautiful!
    But it’s true that much of Mexican pan dulce isn’t very good. However, more than a few better bakeries have opened up, as I noted in Colonia Roma Norte.
    http://mexkitchen.blogspot.mx/2013/07/three-notable-bakeries-of-colonia-roma.html

    But I haven’t yet gotten around to trying some of the others that Lesley has mentioned to me, among them, Masa Madre. Then, there’s a French pastry shop on Calle Mérida, just south of Av. Álvaro Obregón. A friend recently went there and she recommends it. (The name has slipped my mind.)

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  4. Flora

    I love pan dulce! Excellent piece on one of my favorite foods! I always believed Mexico’s pan dulce had many stories to tell, and you have begun some of the story telling. Thank you for sharing the wonderful pictures and links too.

    Buscando el pan del dia en Massachusetts.

    Flora

  5. alesiagarcia1

    Thank you so much for this article! I love your blog!

  6. Lola

    Great article and beautiful pictures, Leslie. You made me laugh when you said that most of the pan dulce you have tasted hasn’t been that great. Conchas are the best when they are nice and soft, right out of the oven…otherwise, they’re too dry. But freshly baked pan dulce can be heavenly!

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