The Humble Pan de Sal



Bread is surely a Spanish heritage. Wheat does not grow in the Philippines. The Spaniards brought in wheat flour as well as the techniques of bread-making. Wheat was also important to the Spanish settlers who arrived in the Philippine during 16th century not just because they preferred bread to rice as a staple but most importantly due to their religious zeal. The Christian host (hostia) can only be made from the purest, finest wheat flour. Wheat flour was necessary if the Spaniards truly intended to convert and not just conquer. 


When the Filipinos began baking their own bread, they came up with the crumbs-sprinkled  pan de sal, a pinch of salt that originally gave this simple Filipino bread its distinctive flavor and thus its name.



According to Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria, there were two kinds of pan de sal that once reigned in the Filipino bread basket. The traditional and more respected of the pair was known as the pan de suelo. During the Spanish times, dough was baked on oven floors (suelo) thereby making crusts very crisp and hard which to according to Nick Joaquin “colegialas got their gums toughened on their segundo almuerzo in the morning and, with hot chocolate, their meriendas in the afternoon.”   


When the Americans came and governed the Philippines, they introduced the use of metal pans in baking bread which they considered more hygienic than cooking on mopped-up brick.  



Today, the pan de sal comes with hard or soft crust as well as in big and small sizes. In fact, the size of the pan de sal is considered a gauge of the national economy. Sta. Maria explains that a good-sized pan de sal indicates good times at hand, while a shrinking pan de sal mean that the peso buying power is declining. 


But whether in good times or not so good times, the pan de sal has become an institution of Philippine culture. For Professor Doreen Fernandez, the pan de sal is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes. It is brown and plain like the Filipino, good by itself or alone, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It is good, basic and strong -just the way we are, and would like the nation to be.


Third of a series on Filipino bread traditions.

Click here for the first part of this series. 


Information sources:

Palayok by Doreen Fernandez

Breads, beguiled and blessed by Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria

Almanac for Manileños by Nick Joaquin


Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (5)  
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The Curative Pan de San Nicholas



One of the most charming bread traditions introduced by the Spaniards to the Filipinos occurs every September 10th in parishes honoring San Nicholas de Tolentino.


Dr. Alejandro Roces describes Saint Nicholas de Tolentino as the Super Saint of the Augustinian order. Aside from being the traditional patron of forty-six Philippine towns (Augustine is tutelary of only forty-four), he became famous for the legend of Guadalupe’s San Nicholasi; the “miraculous” appearance of the shrikes or locally known as the tarat during his feast day; and the sacramental bread (or more of a biscuit)  known as the Pan de San Nicholas.



Born in 1246, San Nicholas de Tolentino was an Italian hermit of the Augustinian order who made his profession before turning 19 years old. He is usually depicted dressed in black robe, with a star shining above him or resting on his chest. In his hand is a lily or lily-garlanded crucifix that symbolizes his youthful virginity. At times he carries a money bag or bread bun symbolic of his continuous charity with the poor until his death in 1306. In the Philippines, where he is considered as the baker’s patron, a tarat bird which migrates to the islands in September is added to his iconography.


The distinguishing feature of the San Nicholas feast was the blessing and distribution of bread, the bread which was supposed to be as miraculous as the saint’s charities. According to the story, when San Nicholas was ill, he envisioned that the Virgin had advised him to eat a small piece of bread dipped in water; following Blessed Virgin’s advice, San Nicholas recovered. Thereon, he started distributing blessed bread to the sick. After his demise, his followers continued the practice of blessing and portioning bread during his feast day.  



According to Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria, Pan de San Nicholas is not bread but a biscuit. Wheat or arrow-root flour, a hint of sugar and water are all it takes to make this holy cookie. Some add eggs and milk that bread vendors of that time cried out “Pan de San Nicholas, me gatas, me itlog!” Its flavor and texture is similar to the uraro as we know it today. What makes the Pan de San Nicholas different from the uraro though is the embossed image of San Nicholas on the biscuit.  


Sta. Maria explains that it was only on the feast day of San Nicholas were made available. Therefore, the production of the Pan de Nicholas ration must last for one whole year till the next feast. 



The biscuits were made after flattening dough with a wooden rolling pin. Hands-size portions are slapped unto baking cards finely carved with recessed likeness of the saint. Then the dough is extracted with a knife or metal cutter. It takes hours to make a batch in old-fashioned rice-husk or wood fuelled furnace.    


According to Dr. Roces, Pan de San Nicholas is to be stored and in the event of illness, eaten with accompanying prayer: “Grant we beseech thee, Almighty God, that thy Church, which is made illustrious by the glory of the marvels and miracles of blessed Nicholas, thy confessor, may by his merits and intercession enjoy perpetual peace and unity, through Christ, our Lord, Amen.”


The curative effect when eating the Pan de San Nicholas may have had more than a placebo effect. Penicillin, the first and the most valuable antibiotic, is most commonly found on bread mold. Dr. Roces explains that the reported sanative effect of Pan de San Nicholas is due to either the subjective impression of patients, primitive penicillin at work.


Moreover, when the blessed biscuit is not eaten for illness, it is crumbled and spread to the fields during planting with the hope for a bountiful harvest.


Second part of a series on Filipino bread traditions.

Click here for the first part of this series.  


 Information sources:

Guadalupe’s San Nicholasi by Dr. Alejandro Roces

Breads, beguiled and blessed by Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria

Almanac for Manileños by Nick Joaquin


Filipino Bread Traditions


While we were strolling at Gateway Mall in Cubao, a nicely arranged bread basket at the Mandarin Oriental Cafe & Deli caught our attention. In the olden days, bread has its day in the month of September. During the feast of San Nicholas de Tolentino (celebrated every September 10th), the breads that got blessed and distributed were claimed to be as miraculous as the saint’s charities. The bread (or more of a biscuit) was known as The Curative Pan de San Nicholas.


Bread baking was introduced to us by the Spaniards. When we began baking our own bread, we came up with The Humble Pan de Sal, a pinch of salt that originally gave this simple Filipino bread its distinctive flavor and thus its name. This Creole artifact has become an institution of Philippine culture yet it remains basic and down-to-earth. 



During the pre-war days, panaderias or neighborhood bakeshops in Manila began to introduce bread varieties of different shapes, sizes, texture and flavors in glass display cases or escaparate. These breads used to appear so regularly on Filipino tables and that they were traditionally paired with certain dishes.  



Also occurring this month is the Mid-Autumn Festival which is also called the Mooncake Festival. It is during this time of the year when the moon is believed to be at its fullest, brightest and biggest. This year, Chinese families would gather to feast and frolic, play games, sing songs and tell Mid-Autumn stories such as the Legend of the Hopia and First Mid-Autumn Celebration under the September moon. 


First part of a series on Filipino bread traditions.