But good bread? Good bread I kinda worship a teensy (a massive amount) bit. Good bread is something entirely different. It’s alchemy. Magic. Love. All kneaded into something filling, nourishing, life-giving. And it’s something I don’t understand at all, which makes it literally feel like a magic trick to me – which makes me love it all the more.
And the bread in Portugal?
It’s a religious experience. I’m pretty convinced that this is not a Catholic country, it’s a Gluten country. Before moving here, I had no idea. For all our research and reading and YouTube watching, I had no idea that bread and Portugal are like pasta and Italy. Because apparently, no one has taken on the marketing challenge of making Portugal ‘Terra do Pão Mágico’ / ‘Land of The Magic Bread’ (more on that in a sec). YouTubers all seem to be equally obsessed with Pastel de Nata (rightfully so – these little beasts are almost as good as the bread) and Francesinha “sandwiches” (seriously, I have no idea what the fuck this thing is, but it is most definitely NOT a sandwich), but no one really talks about the bread here.
And it is truly special.
From grocery stores to Padarias (bread bakeries – I mean for real they have whole bakeries JUST for bread), you can get any and every kind of bread here. From exceptional sourdoughs to crusty brown breads packed with seeds and made from hand-ground grains to focaccias that taste like vacation, they have it all. There is even a company that ONLY makes crustless loaves. You parents out there know how life-changing this is. I’m telling you, Portugal is the Land of Magic Bread.
Our favorite place to buy bread is from a woman named Marina. Marina used to be a lawyer. Now she bakes bread. Really goddamn good bread. Her shop is the size of an average American bathroom. She’s open when she makes bread and is closed when it’s gone. She’s closed at lunch time and on Sundays and usually Mondays, and whenever she doesn’t feel like making bread.
I would marry this woman.
I have no idea what she does to her bread, but it tastes like love. It makes our whole family happy when we eat it. It reminds us of why we moved – obviously, so we could buy fresh bread from Marina.
But see, Portugal has a marketing problem.
Before contemplating moving here, I barely knew anything about Portugal. I knew they used to sail and explore a lot, and Lisbon was pretty nice, and they conquered a LOT of the world, and they really like soccer (US public education really hits the high notes).
I didn’t know that they have more accessible beaches than anywhere else in Europe. Or that they have some of the biggest rideable waves in the world, or that they have one of the oldest cities in Europe, or the fact that an earthquake destroyed Lisbon in 1755, or that the people here are some of the generally nicest, most grounded people in the world.
Seriously, I can’t tell you how many times a Portuguese person has concluded a complicated and confusing broken-English-loud-talking-
It’s all ok. It will be good.
They just seem to believe that. With love. All. The. Time.
And you can taste it in the bread. I swear you can.
And I didn’t know anything about the bread until I got here.
Because see, Portugal is like the brand new business owner of Europe. Lots of past cred and good ideas and a lot to prove to its friends and neighbors because of all the dictatorship nonsense from the past hundred years. They just got their Squarespace website and they had one post go viral and now everyone is talking about them, but they have no idea what to do with all the attention, or even what makes them special to the rest of the world because all this attention is coming so fast, they haven’t even had a chance to get good headshots taken. So they let other people promote the shiny things. The silly sandwiches – the glittering ocean (ok, that one is pretty incredible) – the affordability. And it all seems to miss something fundamental that so many recent transplants seem to see from the outside.
As is evident by the fact that no one knows about the goddamn bread.
If I worked for Portugal’s PR department, I wouldn’t be talking about how great it is to retire here (and I would definitely stop telling people about Bacalhau). I would be talking about how the people here make the best goddamn bread on planet earth. Not because I want people to move here for the bread, but because people should come here for the people who make the bread. Portugal seems to have this sense of love and humility and pride that creeps from the cracks in the tiled sidewalks and it makes this place glow like it’s magic hour all the time. Everyone you see working here – from garbage collectors to bakers to butchers to shop owners – they all have this decidedly not-American calm about them. Not like they are joyfully picking up trash (I’m not that naive – promise). It isn’t joy. Not cheerful fakery either. Just calm. Contentment, maybe? I honestly don’t rightly know what it is. I haven’t been here long enough to understand it. But I see it and feel it every day here. Whatever it is.
Like it’s all ok. It will be good.
No one fake smiles at me or says a chipper hello when I go into a shop. It’s such a relief.
There’s no frenetic profiteering. No desperate hours for money-making.
No one seems like they are trying to scale anything. Or open three more bread shops.
Because it’s already all ok. It will be good.
It already is good. It already is enough.
As business owners, we are constantly told that the only way forward is more. More money. More offers. More clients. More time.
So. Much. More.
More burnout. More exhaustion. More debt. More disappointment. More failure.
So. Much. More.
And while I am very very aware that Portugal’s shit wages, long hours, and notoriously dreadful work culture are not contributing factors in what makes this place special (or maybe they are?). I am also keenly aware that something is still alive here that has died in a lot of other places.
Because there is still room for Marina and her amazing bread.
And Marina isn’t wrecked by the grueling pace of a baker.
I know it because you can taste it.
It’s all ok. It will be good.