Year of Grace Day 210. Ensaïmada and pa de sel

These are the Catalan spellings for the traditional Philippine — or to be more historically correct, Hispano-Philippine — pastry ensaymada and bread roll pan de sal.

The name “ensaïmada” comes from “saïm,” Catalan for lard, the shortening traditionally used to make the airy yeast pastries original to the Mallorcan islands, a few kilometers’ sail across the Mediterranean from Ametlla de Mar. The cloud banks over the islands were visible from the port when we took a long stroll there yesterday towards sunset. Ensaïmadas, made in the time-honoured manner, are unique and specific to the Mallorcan islands, so that they are now protected with a European Union Geographical Certificate, similar to the Denomination Controllé for wine and other terroir products of Europe.

I was delighted to come across the familiar coiled buns of ensaïmada at the Mercat Central on Saturday and as well the bakery close to the flat. The ensaïmada pictured above, from the bakery, was unbelievably light, and although it may sound clichéish, it was as light as duck down. I have not eaten anything as delicate and as airy as this. Ever. In contrast to Philippine ensaymada, this one is liso (plain). Its only adornment is the generous powdering of confectioner’s sugar. It had no need of any at all, unlike the typical Philippine buns which are generously slathered with butter, granulated sugar, and grated cheese. Much as a true beauty, this ensaïmada needed no cosmetics for enhancement: this ensaïmada was truly superb just as it was, in its natural state. I have yet to try the other geographically protected variant made with cabello de angel (angel’s hair, referring to shreds of pumpkin or squash hearts).

I have been in search for quite some time for the pan de sal of my Manila childhood – characterized by a crisp crust with a tender, pullable inner crumb. As a child I had not cared for the crust, and once I had broken open a fresh roll, I would pinch in small round bits or gently pull out in long shreds the soft white crumb within. It was a challenge to see how long I could pull them until they broke. The hard crusty crispness shaved my palate raw, leaving it painful throughout much of the day, much as the crust of a freshly baked baguette now does, and which as an adult I now tolerate for the pleasure of relishing those contrasting textures of crispness outside and tender chewiness within.

Left, pa de sel; right, pa de segòl (rye).

Something happened to the original, palate-torturing pan de sal of my Manila childhood during my teens. Elaborated with egg and milk and shortening, its once crisp exterior became tender, and to those like me who had once suffered lacerated palates, the new improved pan de sal was truly welcome. Many years later as my palate learned to genuinely appreciate the role of textures and contrasts to the mouthfeel of bread, I came to have a better appreciation of the old, unimproved pan de sal. But alas! It was no longer to be had, at least in the usual supermarkets and shops. Perhaps in some specialty artisanal bakery somewhere in the Philippines, it may yet be found.

Although I had hoped to find pan de sal in Spain, after all, this Philippine roll originated here, I had not expected to find it here in Ametlla de Mar. The discovery of local pa de sel was totally unexpected: M had gone for rye bread and I’d asked for a couple of rolls. The only rolls in the bakery that day were these, and when asked their name, the baker said, “pa de sel” o “viennas.” How fortuitous! They are not the usual oval shape with pointy ends as the Manila version, but more of a Kaiser roll, and thus the name vienna, in much the same manner that ensaïmadas are called mallorcas in Puerto Rico.

This geographical baptism of pastry and bread takes me back to my mother’s favourite bakery in Manila, called Vienna Bakery, which specialized in just those hard, crusty rolls with tender interiors that my mother adored. And which the untrained palate of my childhood self would break open, completely ignoring the crust, and just slowly pull out in long, long shreds their soft chewy crumb.

The pa de sel in Ametlla de Mar is unlike the pan de sal of my Manila childhood. Despite the crisp crust, its crumb is too tender and doesn’t draw out into long shreds. Perhaps, like all childhood memories of taste, that kind of pan de sal is not as I have treasured its memory to be. But who knows? Perhaps I may still encounter it, somewhere in Spain, perhaps in the Basque region, where most of the Spanish settlers in the Philippines originated from.

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