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Machines lend a hand to Cuban bread bakers at Tampa's La Segunda

TAMPA

La Segunda Central Bakery has been churning out long loaves of Cuban bread since World War I.

The thin crust and chewy interior has a distinct flavor that's even better with butter. Each loaf is unique because it is formed by hand.

After nearly a century, the bread has seen only a few modifications. Thirty years ago, shortening replaced lard. Twenty years ago, machines started producing shorter loaves for restaurants, including the Columbia.

But the biggest change is coming.

La Segunda, Tampa's oldest Cuban bread bakery, will soon switch from hands to machines to form each classic 36-inch loaf. The aim is to increase production to meet a growing demand.

The change doesn't sit well with everyone at the bakery.

"I wouldn't say a backlash," said La Segunda co-owner Copeland Moré, ''but there's definitely been some resistance."

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The Cuban bread in Tampa is not the Cuban bread you find in Miami. Tampa's version has a crispier crust and denser interior.

The difference is economics, said Alex Kinder, a park services specialist with the Ybor City Museum, housed in the former Ferlita Bakery.

In Cuba, Juan Moré found a round bread that was updated to a long loaf because it served more rations. War in Cuba and an influx of Cubans working in the cigar factories of Ybor City led to the denser Cuban bread that stretched to feed more people.

Miami's Cuban bread was developed during a time of plenty, so there was no need to ration, Kinder said.

Miami's bread is already automated. That bread seems more like hoagies because loaves are baked in metal pans instead of the hearths used at La Segunda, said Andrew Huse, a USF special collections librarian who has studied the history of Tampa food.

Huse said Tampa's bread was artisanal, or handmade, long before the term became fashionable. These days, he says, it's hard for any company to resist an easier way to produce more.

"Every product that's artisanal, whether you're talking about cheese, bread, anything, it's all endangered," Huse said.

• • •

The machines will bring more consistency to the loaves, ensuring they're the same size, texture and color. Mechanization also allows the bakery to double the number of loaves produced each week. During peak season, La Segunda produces 12,000 loaves daily. Summer days see a low of 8,000 to 10,000 loaves.

Other local bakeries are taking note.

Cuban bread has been rolled by hand for more than 50 years at Casino Bakery, 2726 N 36th St. Owner Nuri Muhsen, 49, said his bakery produces up to 4,000 loaves a day, and he's interested in expanding. Both Muhsen and Moré said machines to fit the 36-inch loaves just haven't been available.

Mauricio Faedo, 67, owner of his eponymous bakery at 5150 N Florida Ave., sells handmade loaves. His 30-year-old bakery is too small to invest in machines for higher production, he said.

Tony Ali, one of La Segunda's three master bakers, said he isn't sure about the machines. He loves having his hands in the dough.

"When it comes out beautiful, you take pride in it," said Ali, 31.

But Moré said the machines allow master baker to focus on making the best dough. They've already got the humidity, the newest batch of flour and other variables to deal with, he said.

Moré said he's sure bakers ultimately will realize this actually means more time to make better bread and the work will take less of a physical toll on other employees.

His Spanish great-grandfather, Juan Moré, brought the Cuban bread recipe to Tampa after fighting in the Spanish-American War in Cuba and helped found La Segunda in 1915. Would he be okay with the changes?

"Absolutely. He was an innovator. I think he was an entrepreneur and a very, very successful one for his time," Moré, 30, said. "So I think he would be one who's with the times."

La Segunda employs a community of bakers whose brothers, fathers and cousins also worked in the bakery.

That doesn't change.

Neither does the placement of thin strips of palmetto leaves atop the loaves, which opens the crust and prevents the bread from bursting, Kinder said.

They may not have the same distinctive look. But Moré says one thing won't change: the taste.

Ileana Morales can be reached at (813)226-3386 or imorales@sptimes.com.

Machines lend a hand to Cuban bread bakers at Tampa's La Segunda 01/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 10:14pm]

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