Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Baker on Quetzalcoatl Street

Fernando Cuevas Cortés is an artisan bread maker. His family has been baking traditional sweet breads for three generations: conchas, ladrillos, polverones, and specialty breads like pan de muerto and Rosca de Reyes. His earthen oven is located in the back of his home on Calle Quetzacoatl in the Centro Histórico of Oaxaca. His family has lived there for four generations and the Panadería Nanchalito opened its doors as a local establishment in 1963. Before that, the bread baked was sold by the women of the family in their stall in the Mercado Hidalgo in the barrio Reforma. 

Fernando learned to bake at the age of sixteen from his stepfather. They baked twice a day and the bread was brought to Mercado Hidalgo where his mother, Doña Estela, sold it. She sold in that market for forty-seven years before her death in 2012. In 2002 my late wife, Marie Le Glatin Keis, sketched Doña Estela selling her bread in that market. Ten years later, after Marie’s death, I returned to Oaxaca looking for some of the people she had sketched over the years. Upon arriving at the Mercado Hidalgo, I found only three women selling bread at their stalls. I showed Marie’s sketch to one of the women who said she knew the woman in the sketch well; it was her mother-in-law. Doña Estela had died one year earlier on exactly the same date that Marie had died in 2011. I photographed her at her mother-in-law’s booth in the market, but she suggested that I go visit her husband, Fernando, who looked very much like his mother. The next day I visited Fernando at the bakery, he showed me a photograph of his mother, told me the story of the bakery, and invited me to spend the morning with him as he baked bread to send to the market.

Fernando is very proud of his earthen oven; he had it rebuilt in 2004. The bread it produces is much more flavorful than those baked in industrial gas ovens. He explained that with wood, the bread bakes from the bottom upward, and the oak that is used to fire the oven gives it a very special taste. Business was very good in 2004; he was selling to restaurants and hotels and had four people helping him bake; each day he sold everything. He had a quality product made with all natural ingredients, hand crafted, and baked in a wood-fired oven, just like his ancestors had done before him. His business was booming.

Then in 2006 came the Popular Uprising in Oaxaca. A conflict between teachers and government led to violent confrontations, deaths, and a dramatic drop in tourism in Oaxaca. Many small businesses were forced to close and Fernando lost most of his restaurant and hotel clients.  In 2015 he and his wife separated, and he had no one to sell in the market. At age seventy, Fernando fears the days of Panadería Nanchalito are limited. He works alone now and his legs are suffering from the eight-hour days spent standing while baking. He has varicose veins and his joints are stiffening. His two children are professionals and are not interested in taking over the business. Fernando feels sad that a three-generation old baking business is nearing an end. “I love what I do; it fulfills me as a person”. He provides a much-appreciated service in the community and has a faithful clientele of neighbors and friends that he sees daily.  He is proud to still be doing things in a traditional way, using healthy ingredients, and baking his bread in his oak fired oven. To Fernando, it is an honest and meaningful way of making a living. 

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