The Conquistador Nuñez de Bonilla brought flour mills to Cuenca as soon the Spanish city was founded in the sixteenth century. He placed them on one side of the city’s first cross, at the sacred Inca hill where today’s massive Todos Santos Church rises. This would make this part of town a baker’s neighborhood, perhaps the first baker’s neighborhood in presentday Ecuador, if not Ecuador’s foremost baker’s neighborhood, given the irrefutable fact that it has never stopped smelling of bread.
Like a distant memory of that old, Colonial city, breads produced in the artisanal wood furnaces of the dozens of bakeries found along these very southwestern city streets, spread a sweet, warm aroma into the air, especially in the early morning and evening hours, that reaches the most forgotten corners of the Historic Center. It turns out, bakeries were largely developed and run by the nuns that resided in the area. That’s why today’s Bread Festival takes place in the neighborhood, organized in part by the Museo de las Conceptas, when bakers spill out on to the city streets, offering their produce all day long. This year, the festivity coincided with All Soul’s Day, and included the preparation of the traditional colada morada and guaguas de pan.
The city’s history and love affair with bread has spawned the myriad recipes (and peculiar names) for bread one finds today. From ‘mestizos’ to ‘Christ’s knees’ (the sweet cheese that oozes out from inside of them evoke Christ’s wounds on the Cross), the fragrant ‘Virgin’s Flower’, ‘corn bread’ known as ‘Tomebamba’, to Little Michael (miguelito), with coconut and dulce de leche, or the traditional Cuenca ‘French bread’ (pan francés), filled with nuts and raisins. Not only do these varieties make Cuenca smell like bread, they make Cuenca taste like bread, too. Just observe Cuencanos hastening from work to their favorite bakery at the end of the working day to realize how important a part bread plays in their lives.