Galician Bread: Flavor, Individuality, and Culture

Bread is almost universal, and every community has its own recipe. In Galicia, bread is a humble yet powerful culinary element, which is both widely recognized and instantly recognizable.

Flour, water, and salt. This simple list of ingredients is the starting point for countless traditional (and some more modern) breadmaking techniques. Despite the growing prevalence of packaged and frozen bread, in Galicia bakers in hundreds of small bakeries work with skill and innovation to ensure the survival of good quality bread.

Pan of the I.G.P. Cea bread (2009)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Galician bread has an intense flavor with alveoli (holes formed during baking) in its moist center, and a crusty exterior. It stays fresh and tasty for several days. Although different recipes will have their own unique, special touches, shapes and flavors, those are the characteristics that all Galician loaves share. 

Wheat field in A Limia (2014)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

A landscape shaped by bread

Galicia's breadmaking tradition originated far away, and has shaped the region's landscape. Following the discovery of America, wheat and rye fields grew alongside corn, which has had a huge impact on this area. 

Hórreo de Ozón (2011)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

At the time, grain was ground and stored in hórreos: raised grain stores that protect the grain from rodents while keeping it ventilated. The size of an hórreo symbolized the wealth of its owner: this one in San Martiño de Ozón is one of the largest in Galicia.

O Folón Mills (2021)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

The grain was ground into flour in one of the thousands of watermills located on the banks of streams and rivers, such as these ones in O Folón. Mills have been a central part of Galician culture: they were meeting points and are the subject of several traditional songs, known as coplas. The most famous traditional Galician dance is called a muiñeira (mill owner).

Pilgrim's hostel in Bruma (2021)Regional Government of Galicia

It was common for families to make their own bread. They kneaded the dough in a kneading-trough and baked it in a stone oven, which was often a room in the house. The pilgrim hotel in Bruma, on the English Way, has one of these ovens.  

Cea bread (2020)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Cea: bread with a cut

Several towns in Galicia are known for their breadmaking tradition, such as O Porriño on the Portuguese Way, Neda and Carral on the English Way, Ousá, and Antas de Ulla.

Pan of the I.G.P. Cea bread (2020)Original Source: Axencia Galega da Calidade Alimentaria

Cea, located on the Silver Way, is possibly the most famous of them all. Cea's bread has protected geographical indication. This regulates and protects the traditional, artisan breadmaking technique that dates back to at least the 13th century. There is documentary evidence that the region's ovens existed at that time.

Breads of the I.G.P. Cea bread in the oven (2009)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

It is made with wheat flour, water, and salt, which are fermented with the previously prepared starter dough. The process is a laborious one. After kneading it, leaving it to stand, and then dividing it, the loaves are rolled into balls and left to prove three times.  

Breads of the I.G.P. Cea bread in the oven (2013)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Before going into the oven, a deep slit known as the fenda is cut into the dough, which gives it its characteristic shape. The loaves are baked in a granite oven, and the fenda is cut more deeply, which molds the bread into an oval shape.  

Pan of the I.G.P. Cea bread (2006)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

The result is a loaf with an intense, wheaty flavor, and a spongy center which is the color of the wheat. The crust is hard and laminated, with a toasted flavor and a golden-brown color. 

Only by tasting it can you appreciate its simplicity and its perfection, achieved by following this centuries-old breadmaking technique. 

Moletes, Galician bread with moña (2021)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Moist and aromatic

The qualities of Galician bread are not the exclusive preserve of any particular town. The bread has certain characteristics that are found across the entire region, and an unmistakable flavor that is mainly due to the variety of wheat known as trigo país, which is traditionally grown in Galicia. Breads with the protected geographical indication of Galician bread must contain at least 25% of this variety of flour.  

Neda bread (2021)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Another feature that is always present is a high level of moisture. Wheat shortages during certain periods led bakers to develop a technique that used a lot more water than in other areas: sometimes there are equal parts flour and water, and sometimes even more water is added. 

Neda bread (2009)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

The long proving periods (for a slower fermentation process), the manual shaping of the loaves, the use of old stone wood-burning ovens, or newer ovens with a fireproof oven floor, and the long baking time, are characteristic of Galicia's breadmaking technique. 

Pan of the I.G.P. Galician bread (2020)Original Source: Axencia Galega da Calidade Alimentaria

The result is a highly aromatic bread with a slightly acidic taste, with a thick, crusty exterior and a center full of irregular alveoli (holes formed during baking).  

The loaf is usually tall and round, and known as a bolo, molete, or hogaza. It is often made with a topknot, giving it its unmistakable appearance.  

A flat, rounded loaf is known as a bola or torta. It was traditionally the first loaf to be placed in the oven, to lower the temperature.  

A loaf known as a rosca is traditionally shaped into a flat, irregular ring.

And finally, the barra, which is shaped like a baguette and is Spain's most-consumed loaf.

Broa de millo, cornmeal bread (2010)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Bread that's not just bread

The bread known as pan de millo (corn bread) or pan de broa (maize bread) is made by combining wheat flour or rye flour with corn flour. This bread has a dark, dense, moist center. Historically, corn was more accessible to poorer families, who would only eat the softer wheat bread on specific occasions. A verse in a collection of proverbs says, “O pantrigo fíxoo Deus, a broa mandouna facer” (God made wheat bread, he ordered others to make corn bread).

In many ways, the opposite is true today: corn bread is only eaten occasionally, and is often linked to specific festivals such as the Noche de San Juan (St. John's Eve), when it is eaten with grilled sardines. The bread in this image was made with millo corvo, a native variety of black corn.  

Corn pie with cockles (2012)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Dough made with corn is often used for Spanish pasties known as empanadas. These pasties are filled and baked in the oven, in individual but generously sized portions. Empanadas made with corn dough tend to contain a seafood-based filling. The most popular fillings are pilchards (known as xoubas in Galicia), and cockles. 

Meat pie (2012)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

Empanadas made with wheat dough are more common. They can be filled with almost anything, and the filling is usually fried and made with plenty of onion. Popular fillings include cuttlefish, cod, a chorizo and spice mix known as zorza, meat, and pancetta. The best-known and most commonly eaten filling is tuna.

Right arch of the Portico of Glory (ca. 1168-1188) by Master MateoThe Catedral de Santiago Foundation

The first documentary reference to an empanada is on Santiago Cathedral's Portico of Glory. In what may be a depiction of gluttony, a person is shown in hell, eating something that looks like an empanada.

Perhaps the artist, Master Mateo, was inspired by the food eaten by 12th-century pilgrims, which would not have differed all that much from what today's pilgrims eat in Compostela's terraces and restaurants. 

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