The Poie is an important part of Goan culture but sadly like many things has been gradually disappearing from popular imagination however there are people like Alison Jane Lobo who are making an effort to ensure this important part of Goan culture does not disappear. Deepa George met with her
mong the many traditions that Goa is known for, waking up to the honk of the local poie (bread) vendor is one of the oldest. Sadly, this seems a distant echo, fading into oblivion with the custom now relegated only to a few villages. Wanting to keep the ‘poder’ (baker) tradition alive and ensuring that Goa’s bonding with bread is always enriched, Alison Jane Lobo through her Goencho Pao baking class is training scores of Goans to make their daily bread. Deepa George learns this rewarding skill and, in the process, also unfolds some life lessons from this super single mum.
Before one meet’s Alison, one is accosted by her endearing twins who rattle off in Portuguese and claim my heart by calling me ‘menina’ (little girl). It is evident that I have stepped into a Goa of yore where Portuguese was spoken fluently and warm hospitality was the norm. “I didn’t speak Portuguese as a child as my dad didn’t speak the language but my mum did.” confesses Alison. She is now learning Portuguese words, sentences and nursery rhymes to teach her four-year-old twins whom she homeschools! As one gets to know more about this single mum, it’s clear that her tenacity and willingness to try has led her to serendipitous paths.
For Goans, bread has always been a staple and their relationship with bread so proven that it’s no surprise that Goans in Mumbai are referred to as ‘paos’ or ‘macapaos’. However, this tradition too seems to be largely relinquished to enterprising ‘outsiders’ from Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It makes Alison’s foray into teaching this art cum science all the more ingenious. Sharing her journey, she says, “As kids, it used to be an event at home when my dad experimented with making bread and he’d let me give it a try.” She sighs, “Goa has been changing so rapidly. When the local bakery shut down and the land taken for a building development, it just triggered a desire in me to keep the tradition of Goan bread alive.”
This led her to keep tweaking on the basics that her father taught her. Considering she was an amateur with no formal training in baking, it definitely was a daunting task but that didn’t stop her from kneading through her fears. She explains, “Yeast is the genesis of bread, the mystery fungus which has fascinated minds for centuries. I started experimenting with different types of yeast available locally. After a lot of trials, failures and successes over two years, I managed to make this humble living organism work for me.” With the basics in place, she went on to experiment with whole flours and also making Sur Poie (using toddy). She then passionately followed through with Oonde, stuffed and unstuffed Paozinhos, Katre poie, cinnamon buns and sliced bread.
Armed with positive feedback from family and friends, Alison took the leap in conducting classes in July. She teaches the seven basic tenets of bread making - mixing ingredients, kneading the dough, forming the loaves, first rise, second rise, traditional Goan shaping of loaves and finally baking. Within a span of six months, she has taught 400 enthusiasts! People from all over Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Dubai, U.K and Portugal have joined her movement. From 9 year olds to 85 year olds, she has managed to teach them all. She reveals, “I figured, even if one member of a family learnt to make bread, the tradition would live on. For me, this isn’t a business but has become a passion and a mission.” For a self confessed introvert, she holds her students’ attention with flair. Prompt, professional and patient, one would think she is a trained chef. Chuckles Alison, “I am still learning. Bread making is dependent on so many factors like humidity and the elasticity of the dough - there’s so much to improvise.”
One of the largest classes she has conducted was for the Goa Culinary Association. She reminisces, “I couldn’t feel my skin when I conducted that class. I had all these expert chefs like Joe Mascarenhas and others from established hotels, resorts and cafes. Later, IHM wanted to do a course too and they sent teachers to train with me. It felt surreal.” The interesting feature of her class is in tasting the fruits of one’s labour - freshly baked poies that have a lovely red tinge of the ragi flour and wheat bran (kundo), taken to a sublime level with her mum Camilia’s delicious filling of sausage chilly fry, cornbeef, beef roast and the innovative cheese with curry leaves chutney.
She also started a Whatsapp group for her ‘poders’ and all those who have done the course share their pictures, queries and baking experiences. Time, a precious commodity for most is given freely by Alison. “I am available anytime. There are students who message me at dawn since most of the prep process happens early morning and if they are stuck, they reach out to me.” It is a known fact that store bought breads have many emulsifiers and preservatives in their list of ingredients. Jokingly she says, “We are living in dubious times. We may not be able to make our own fish but we can make our own bread.”
Keeping in step with the path that seems to be carved for her, she has partnered with Black Swan Journeys - a company that conducts curated travel experiences, through which foreigners and tourists visiting Goa attend her class. Her journey thus far has been providential. Says Allison, “I am not very religious but I feel like a divine power has guided me in this path.” Thrilled about the next leg of her journey, Alison is looking forward to her move to Portugal next year. She quickly adds, “But I will be spending many months in Goa. I look at it as a cultural exchange. I hope to learn and teach some Portuguese delicacies in Goa while I take our Goan breads there.” She says with a glint in her eye, “I am not scared of taking the leap. You never know what awaits you.”
The erstwhile air hostess has found her grounding. Backed by a supportive family, her mission of keeping the Goan bread alive is being fulfilled through her students who are multiplying like the loaves she creates. That, in itself is admirable.