Waking around Palma in early morning, I was surprised by the large number of bakeries or “forns”, around town.
Unusually pretty and ornate, dotted around the town’s winding alleys, they are almost the only sign of life for early birds like me. Walking between them and getting various ensaïmadas, I was thinking how amazing local bakeries are, especially in these carb-phobic and food chain-obsessed times.
Indeed, while I was living in the UK, one of the continuing sources of frustration for me was the local lack of bakery and bread culture, especially in the pre-hipster (i.e. pre-sourdough) West Midlands of the late 2000s.
The problem was not just the lack of good pastries , it was the lack of a special experience that neighborhood bakeries provide, the one that I was used to growing up in bakery-obsessed Belgrade.
A local bakery can always surprise you with their take on your favourite pastry or can blow your mind with something new, all for a negligible amount of money, which you won’t care if it was wasted on something substandard.
Indeed, when visiting a foreign country, you can see their main culinary tastes and traditions for the smallest amount of money in their bakeries. Very often you can have some of their favourite dishes in sandwich or pastry form and you can judge their habits: do they have sweet or savoury breakfasts? do they like plain or elaborate foods? What kinds of flavours do they mix?
More than just culinary, bakeries are social, egalitarian experiences. Given that most people eat and can afford at least the basic pastries, in a bakery you can rub shoulders with people of all stripes, whether they are buying fancy chou delicacies, or just a small brioche to get them through the day. You can see whether people form orderly queues, or elbow each other to get their first meals of the day in especially popular ones.
If you are a local, then bakeries are places where you will have daily interactions with the same familiar faces who will ask you how your life is going, and with whom you can build a relationship. Small local bakeries have employees (often family members) who are part of the neighborhood, and not just randomers who get shuffled around.
Bakeries are also great places for business innovation.
Given that many of them sell similar products and face a competitive market they are pushed to innovate both in terms of products and also in terms of marketing. Indeed, the fact that you have so many basically interchangeable forns in Palma, is the reason why they have very elaborate signage and interiors. Finally, master baking, as opposed to just unfreezing of prepackaged supplies is a craft that nurtures creativity and gives pride to the craftsperson.
At last, and most importantly, a culture of many small local bakeries means that there is a strong culinary culture that emphasises quality and local ingredients. If there are no uninspiring bakery chains, there is little need for over-processing ingredients that go into the pastries which trains local palates to expect more from food from early in the morning. Thus we all need to overcome our carb-phobia and laziness, and support our local bakery to make our towns and cities more like Palma.