Provincetown’s Portuguese Bakery
The history of Provincetown’s Portuguese Bakery is nearly as shrouded in mystery as the recipes for its famous pastries. While everyone agrees it has been around “forever,” no one seems quite certain of a date. One of the current owners, Ofelia Bago, says simply, “The bakery has always been Portuguese.”
Most local guesses date the small storefront at 299 Commercial Street back to about 1900, when a Portuguese immigrant opened up shop baking family recipes to feed the growing community of hungry fishing families. Back then, the offerings were simpler: Portuguese sweet bread, hard rolls and Vienna bread were likely all that lined the shelves. In 1976, when previous owners Tony and Mina Ferreira moved to Provincetown from Coimbra, a slightly inland city near Portugal’s southwestern coast, and leased the business from family friends, pastries hit the shelves. “Tony introduced pastries,” says Ofelia. Judging by the continual line stretching from the counter register up front to the back kitchen door, the addition was a success.
Ofelia and her husband Tibor, who is originally from Hungary, are both pastry chefs and have carried on the tradition since buying the shop along with Ofelia’s parents and sister, Joe, Dina and Helena Ferreira, two years ago. While the shared name with the prior owners is a coincidence (Ferreira is to Portugal as Baker is to the Cape), their shared recipes are not.
“Most of the recipes we have are handed down,” says Ofelia. In Portuguese tradition, she explains, recipes are rarely shared between families or businesses, but instead passed down through the generations by mothers or owners as proud and treasured a possession as any other family heirloom.
Over the Bago’s years with Tony and Mina, they learned the ins and outs of the bakery’s recipes. That isn’t to say they didn’t bring in secrets of their own; Ofelia has an extensive background in pastry making from her years at the Culinary Institute of America and Tibor from his time as a pastry chef in Bermuda and Colorado. Both point to a lemon custard breakfast pastry as the most traditional and best selling item in the case. “Every coffee shop in Portugal has pasteis de nata,” says Tibor. “They eat them for breakfast.” Ofelia explains that the recipe is very old. “We did a little fine tuning,” she says, “changed the dough and made it a bit better, but this is an original recipe from Lisbon.”
The custard originated in the city in the 1820s, when the nuns who baked the pastry in Lisbon’s Jeronimos Monastery were forced to disband during the 1820 revolution. They sold their recipe to a confectioner at Pasteis de Belem, a bakery and coffeehouse in the southwestern section of the city that has carefully guarded it ever since.
The custard is cooked in a 550-degree oven, creating a tough, thin shell and caramelizing a layer of cinnamon sugar atop the lemon filling. The resulting pastry is subtly sweet, perfectly gooey and unexpectedly chewy—the perfect accompaniment, according to Ofelia, to a piping cup of espresso
Amongst the other traditional Portuguese pastries the bakery is making are mulosayos, sweet, airy slabs of fried dough. Similar to Spanish churros, they are made with a rich pastry dough rather than the American way with bread dough. “The milk, eggs and cream make them richer than American fried dough,” explains Tibor, “but they are lighter to hold.” He also points out a rack of bolas de berlim—a Bavarian cream doughnut look-alike made from pastry dough and filled with homemade vanilla custard, penhascos de amendoa—almond meringues dotted with chocolate chips that are traditionally served as dessert and rabanadas—a popular breakfast item also known as Portuguese golden toast. “A lot of people come in first thing in the morning to get rabanadas still warn,” says Tibor. “We use Vienna bread soaked in a little bit of syrup, dipped in egg batter, fried and dropped in cinnamon sugar. You eat it just like that.”
Despite the mouthwatering description, you won’t find Tibor snacking on rabanadas behind the counter. “Myself, I’m not big on pastries,” says Tibor. “I don’t have a sweet tooth—I can’t eat cakes whole like most people.”
Instead, he’s more of a meat pie guy. He points lovingly to a pile of pasties de massa tenra, or golden meat pie. “These are very good sellers,” he says smiling. “We combine linguica and ground beef with nice spices and one black olive. They help warm you up.” Rissois de camaroa, savory shrimp pies, are another option for a cold day.
The savory Portuguese pies most famous in Provincetown, however, are the bolinhos de bacalhau, or salted codfish cakes, made with local fish. “You don’t need salt in these,” says Tibor, “just potatoes, salt cod, pepper, garlic and parsley.” The bakery buys cod from local markets or New Bedford boats, doing their best to keep prices down as fuel costs rise.
They also buy their linguica from New Bedford. As another common historic destination for Portuguese immigrants, the city boasts a rich selection of traditionally made pork sausages. “Provincetown used to be so much more of a fishing community,” says Tibor. “Now there are so many regulations. But still, a lot of
people are looking for traditional Portuguese pastries—there are no Portuguese restaurants. Maybe people carry a few dishes, but in New Bedford you can find some really good meals.”
While both Ofelia and Tibor say that most of their customers are American tourists, Tibor believes that being the only traditional Portuguese restaurant in a place with such a rich Portuguese heritage has contributed to their success. “A lot of people come here looking for this place,” he says, “but we also get a lot of locals.” The draw harkens back, perhaps, to an era when sweet bread was all that was
on the town’s tables for breakfast, accompanied by the day’s catch at lunch and dinner.
Ofelia’s not so sure. “If we were waiting for the Portuguese people to come we’d have been bankrupt from day one,” she jokes. “They make their own bread.” Instead, she says, the bakery sees a lot of Americans on vacation and tourists from overseas. “In Europe,” she explains, “they don’t have coffee shops that offer things from another country. We have over 40 pastries that are traditionally Portuguese, so people come from all over to try them.”
Whether or not the Portuguese population is buying, the bakery does manage to keep up its local ties through wholesale accounts with area restaurants and markets. “We sell hard rolls, sweet bread, and Vienna bread to the South Wellfleet General Store, Dutra’s in Truro, the Wellfleet Marketplace, [and in Provincetown] to Far Lands, Bayside Betsy and Cafe Heaven buys our sweet bread,” says Tibor. So does Devon’s, restaurateur Devon Ruesch’s latest fine dining endeavor, and the Mayflower Restaurant across the street from the bakery on Commercial.
When asked what gives the Portuguese sweet bread its distinctive flavor, both Ofelia and Tibor smile but remain tight lipped. “It’s pretty much just eggs, milk, flour and vanilla,” says Ofelia. “Our recipe is from the islands of Azores, off the coast of Portugal. The people there have been using it for centuries.” After the recipe came over with the original owner, it was passed down to Tony and Mina and finally to the Bagos.
While both the couple and their family have a firm foot in the present, there’s something about the past that keeps them in the business as well. “When Tony retired, buying the bakery was the only thing for us to do,” says Ofelia. “We were the only Portuguese family around interested in continuing it. We are building and continuing on what was started over 100 years ago.”
One bite of a pasteis de nata, and you’ll understand. A pastry like that is worth carrying on.
Elspeth Pierson is a freelance writer for a variety of regional publications and has a weekly radio piece on local food with WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station. She lives in Wellfleet, where she enjoys exploring local connections between food, place and identity. This fall, she’ll be hard at work constructing a cold frame in hopes of growing a few greens during the colder months. You can read about her culinary adventures using local foods at www.diaryofalocavore.com, where you’ll also find links to her NPR audio. This content was published in the Fall 2008 Edible Cape Cod Magazine. Copyright 2008 Edible Cape Cod. No part of this article may be reproduced without the written consent of the author or publisher.