TAMPA - It's been said that a time-traveler, even from a generation ago, would find much of our sped-up world shockingly foreign. But I'm pretty sure they weren't talking about Cuban bread.
From where I stand, inside Tampa's La Segunda Central Bakery, about all that's changed in 103 years of making these iconic loaves are the addition (recently) of a few electric gizmos and (even more recently) several women to its baking crew. Which is just fine with bakery co-owner Tony Moré, whose Spanish immigrant grandfather founded the Ybor City bakery, today the world's largest producer of Cuban bread.
"Some changes are good," he says on a walk through his bakery, which also makes all manner of Cuban and non-Cuban pastries, cookies and breads daily. "But we don't skimp on how we make [Cuban bread], or our recipe."
Cuban bread may seem like a baguette with a Spanish accent. But it's its own thing. And no, what encases Arby's new Miami Cuban sandwich doesn't count. Ditto for what some chain grocers pass off as the real deal.
Regional variations exist, but are generally subtle, explains Ana Sofía Peláez, author of "The Cuban Table: A Celebration of Food, Flavors, and History." While she's partial to the Cuban bread she grew up with in Miami, with its "egg shell" delicate crust and "airy" interior, she concedes that La Segunda's, with its papery crust and lightly flaky inside, is truer to the original.
"They've stayed so true to how it's been made for over a century," she says.
La Segunda's Cuban bread has long been popular with locals, even as the ranks of hometown bakers have shrunk in recent decades from dozens to but a handful. Yet growing interest in authentic regional foods, combined with the fortune of having national distribution, has boosted La Segunda's sales. Today the bakery ships to restaurants and individuals as far away as Alaska and Europe.
"We get calls from people wanting to know if we'll overnight a loaf or two of bread to them," Moré says, laughing. "We say, 'It'll be expensive, but sure.' "
Even Tampa's International Cuban Sandwich Festival, once a way to showcase local talent, now draws contestants - and winners - not only from out of state (a Los Angeles restaurant took this year's top honors), but from out of the country, including South Korea and England. Competitors often source their bread from La Segunda and seek out Moré to learn how it's made.
He says that means doing it the same quirky, and mostly manual, way Tampa's early Cuban and Spanish immigrants made their bread, a tradition that few bakeries still honor and no culinary school seems to teach.
At La Segunda, Cuban bread begins on a small screened porch behind the bakery, where several men sit on overturned milk crates. Over the next hour, workers' hands turn a large pile of rough-cut palmetto branches into neat, foot-long strips of split fronds. It's a task that everyone here - from master bakers to new hires - has performed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bakery, master baker Anthony Ali measures flour, salt, sugar and shortening by hand. Gregarious and bestubbled, Ali began working here more than two decades ago as a teenager. The half-dozen years it took him to progress from porch-bound helper to one of several master bakers was fairly quick.
"It can take you more than a year just to learn how to properly roll a long loaf," he says, pouring ingredients into one of two automated mixers. Until a few years ago, mixing was done by hand, as most tasks still are.
As he prepares another batch of dough, he explains the finer points of making authentic Cuban bread that include unique challenges. For example, Tampa's muggy summers and cooler winters can play havoc with producing dough with just the right amount of moisture. Even the area's frequent thunderstorms can throw off calculations. Ratios of ingredients are subtly tweaked, often as the day progresses.
"Every day brings curveballs," Ali says. "With time, you learn to see them coming. You just gotta make sure you don't ever strike out."
Temperatures in the un-air-conditioned bakery can push triple-digits in summer, which makes an already physical job harder.
"It's in summer when people really show who they are," he says. "It's when you know if you love what you do."
And judging from the boisterous camaraderie on this pre-dawn summer morning, most of the 10-person team seems positively gung-ho. Or maybe it's the sweetened Cuban coffee many on the crew have been sipping.
Standing around a table, several men banter and laugh as they grab grapefruit-size blobs of dough (or boleo) from a conveyor belt (another recent technological addition), weigh them, then slap them loudly on the tabletop before deftly folding them into what look like small footballs called bolas. These are then laid on long cloth-covered wooden planks to be stacked on wheeled metal racks that will head to the steam room, where the dough will double in size.
Nearly every day of the year, about 5,000 of these proofed dough balls return to nearby tables where several bench hands, half of them women, working in seven-hour shifts around the clock, roll them by hand into soon-to-be three-foot-long loaves of bread. These are joined daily by an additional 13,000 shorter loaves, rolled by machine.
It's here, too, that the mysterious palmetto fronds come into play. Bench hands gently press strips of palmetto fronds into loaves, forming a green line running the length of each. These leafy ribbons, apparently unique to Cuban bread, do what slashes on other kinds of bread dough do, allow the bread to expand during baking. The result after baking is a signature crusty ridge.
Every few minutes, bench hands hoist a surfboard-long wooden plank, laden with ready-for-the-oven loaves of dough, and slide it onto a metal rack.
Hungry from all this vicarious toil, I wander toward the ovens. As if reading my mind, Alejandro Gamez, who at 24 is the bakery's youngest oven man, offers me a loaf of bread just out of the oven.
As a resident of Tampa for nearly three decades, and a frequent La Segunda customer, I like to think I know what fresh Cuban bread tastes like. But it's clear from the first bite of the delicately crunchy crust and ethereally warm center that straight-out-of-the-oven is the way to go, if impractical.
Happily munching, I go find Moré to pester him about my edible epiphany.
He agrees, adding that because his Cuban bread contains no preservatives, it should be eaten within a day or two, tops.
"It'll get hard as a rock after that," he says.
We compare favorite local Cuban restaurants and joints, most of which get their bread from his bakery. This boom has also inspired him, and his son and fourth-generation co-owner Copeland, to open another bakery, half a dozen miles southwest, that will include a cafe. Finding fresh talent for the new bakery, even though air-conditioned, has been hard.
"The ingredients for [Cuban bread] are simple," the elder Moré says. "It's learning what to do with them that's difficult."
While Cuban bread most often is used to make Tampa's iconic homegrown treat, the Cuban sandwich, it's also lovely on its own, or for Cuban toast, ideally little more than toasted and buttered Cuban bread, with maybe some guava jelly. Tony favors using it to make a fried egg sandwich, which he has nearly every morning.
With a new shift of bakery workers about to start, I realize I should probably be on my way. But not before I ask him something that's been nagging me all morning.
What's with the palmetto leaves? Do they impart some special flavor to the bread?
No, he says. "It's just tradition."