CULTURAL CONFECTIONS

Cluster of Mexican bakeries bring authentic flair to local scene

Story and photos by Sydney Jaxtheimer

The glass door opens, hitting the bell at the top of the doorframe.

Ding!

An aroma fills the air with the sweet smell of sugar frosting and the savory, crisp smell of fresh baked bread. Walking to the display case, customers’ gaze are met with sparkling sugar topping pastries in shapes of circles, rolls and cones. An employee walks out from the back with a fresh tray of cream filled pastries. The yellow cream drips down the side of the golden, sesame seed topped, crescent shaped Mexican pastry, lunas.

La Flore De Mexico, located on South High Street in Harrisonburg, has been in the community since 2008. The current owners, Eliseo Alvarez and his wife, Rosalba Alvarez, have been in the area for over 25 years. Their children, Eliseo Jr. and Dallana, both work in the bakery, making it a family affair.

Customers who are regulars walk into the store and straight toward the back where the bakers are busy kneading bread and frosting pastries.

“Hola,” a man says as he walks back to the kitchen to greet the dark haired man who’s putting trays of shaped dough into the oven. Then the customer proceeds to the front of the store to pick out his baked goods for the week.

“It’s like coming home,” Alvarez Jr. said. “You know when you walk in everyone speaks Spanish, you see things that you are familiar with.”

In Hispanic culture, Mexican pastries and bread are an everyday food, according to Alvarez Jr. Pastries are always out on display on the counter at home to have in the morning with coffee, or after every meal. Whereas in American culture, pastries are like treats and aren’t something that make up a typical everyday diet.

Although the routine of having pastries in Hispanic culture is different than American culture, one thing is constant: the ingredients.

“The flavors that we have and the products that we have are universally good, they aren’t really acquired taste, just sugar and stuff like that, so everyone can enjoy it,” Alvarez Jr. said.

Hugo Santiago, a former baker for nine years at La Flor De Mexico, recently decided it was time for him and his wife to open their own bakery, because the couple needed to start thinking of the future for their two children. In November 2018, they opened El Paisano in downtown Harrisonburg. Santiago and his wife, Berenice Rodriguez both work in the bakery every day.

“Now I feel that I do it with more love,” Santiago said. “I enjoy it more because I know it’s all mine.”

Every morning, Santiago comes into the bakery at 4:30 a.m. to start baking for the day. There are freshly baked breads and pastries to fill the display case daily. He begins his morning by playing Spanish music in the back of the shop. He kneads the dough on the metal table that is white with flour. The bakery is warm from the ovens repeatedly opened so Santiago can turn the trays of pastries inside so they bake evenly. One by one, he pulls the metal trays out, turns them around and slides them back onto the metal racks in the steel oven. This process continues throughout the morning and into the late afternoon.

“It doesn’t matter what time I have to come in,” Santiago said. “I just enjoy doing it. I like what I do.”

Opening their own bakery was quite a risk, especially with the other bakeries in the area. But Rodriguez doesn’t really consider it a competition. She believes that there are plenty of people in the Harrisonburg area that the bakeries can share customers without feeling like there’s  a rivalry.

When looking through the glass doors, the bright frosted pastries glimmer when the sun strikes them. The conchas are frosted with bright, vibrant colors like white, yellow, brown and above all else, pink. Pink is part of the Hispanic culture because of its vivid color which shows brightness and excitement, according to Alvarez Jr.

Conchas are the most popular items at both bakeries. They’re sweet bread rolls that are topped with colored crunchy, sugar topping. Concha, meaning sea shell in English, is shaped like a circle and has patterned designs of squares and triangles on top.

Another unique characteristic of Mexican bakery traditions is the use of trays and tongs to pick pastries out of the display case. Trays and tongs are near the pastries.  Their use may seem common in grocery stores, but using a tray to put the pastries on instead of the customer bagging the pastries and bread up themselves is what all bakeries do in Mexico. Customers pick from the case using the tongs and put the selected treats on the tray, then bring the tray to the counter to be put into bags and packaged up by the employees.

“With a tray, they can choose the ones you want, if you want this one, or a smaller piece,” Rodriguez said.

Different tastes and types of pastries aren’t the only standout characteristics of Mexican baking. It’s more about the background in a person’s culture than just knowing how to make the products. Having a Hispanic background while baking these pastries is special because the baker understands the meaning behind the bread and pastries, not just about the delicious taste of the baked goods. The baker understands that the conchas will be shared at a breakfast table  between a family while they are having their coffee, that the bolillo will be used to make sandwiches for lunches. The baker knows the importance of pastries in their Hispanic culture.

“It’s not just about how to make Mexican bread. It’s about having that history and those ties to it,” Alvarez Jr. said. “So you’re not just someone making Mexican bread, you are someone that has roots to it and selling to people who know about it.”

Although Hispanics are considered the primary clientele for these bakeries, both El Paisano and La Flor De Mexico try to cater to non-Spanish speaking customers as well.

“People will come in and say ‘Oh, first time I’ve seen this,’ and they are excited to try it,” Rodriguez said.

Contact Sydney at jaxthese@dukes.jmu.edu.