Have you ever tasted Husk Poees? These are a special kind of brown bread made only in Goa. Some people call it husk bread because this kind of bread is covered in the fine, ground, husk of rice paddy. The husk of the rice paddy is ground to quite a fine powder and the bread is dusted in this powder. If you shake the bread and pat it against the palm of your hand, the husk powder will fly off the bread and into the air.
Mind you, husk poees are not the same as the packaged, sliced brown bread that’s available in most grocery stores. Husk poees are round, kinda like the home baked bread that Jesus had at the last supper. Perhaps that too was some kind of husk bread.
For the best of Goa’s Poees, walk down the main road of small vagathor (also called Ozran) and ask for Simon Bakery. It’s tucked away in a small by-lane, opposite Leoney’s Resort, on the same lane as Fatima’s restaurant.
Simon is a wiry, slim, 50-something guy whose short cropped hair is till black with a mere hint of grey at the temples. He has been running this bakery since he was in his mid 20s. He was fortunate enough to have a Frenchman baker in Goa teach him how the fine art of bakery when he was very young. His specialty is the husk poees that he makes. They are so good that unlike the poees you get at the Mapusa bakery, these poees will stay soft and fresh for about three days, while others will become hard and stiff within 24 hours. What’s Simon’s secret?
Hard work, and talent. I guess. He certainly has talent. He knows how to get the dough mixed just right. Somehow he uses just the right amount of flour, water, and sur (toddy). Yes he doesn’t use yeast. Instead he bakes all his bread the old fashioned way, with toddy. These days it’s getting more and more difficult to obtain toddy but he takes the trouble to keep looking for suppliers from all over. Sometimes he goes all the way to Panjim to get good toddy.
Simon says that the quality of the sur (toddy) is what really matters in making the poees. A really fresh toddy can make the poees nice and fluffy, and even add a nice slightly tangy taste to the bread.
What is Simon’s day like?
Simon, and his brother Jude, wake up as early as 3.30 am. They run a good old-fashioned wood-fire oven so they have to prepare the logs and start the fire burning early so that it reaches the right temperature. In the monsoons, this becomes very difficult because the wood tends to get damp and does not catch fire so easily.
It’s hot sweaty work that’s to be done early in the morning. First, the logs are placed in the back of the oven (the oven’s core). This area is encased in hard-packed earth. The earthen walls gets heated up and the trays of bread loaves are placed here to get baked. There’s a small metal door in the front of the oven, with a light bulb hanging outside to throw light inside the oven. To reach deep into the core of the oven where it’s really hot, Simon uses a five-foot long ladle. The bread trays are placed at the tip of the ladle and expertly pushed into place.
First the dough, is mixed carefully to the right consistency in a large vat. Then it is measured into loaves. Eight loaves per tray, well-spaced to allow for the bread to ‘rise’ when baked. Simon has a knack of knowing exactly how much time to keep the loaves in the oven and precisely when to open the door and ladle the trays out again. When taking out the trays (those black trays get really hot) he has to be really careful not to get scalded by a tray that may fall on his foot or on his bare chest.
Once the trays are out his brother scoops out the loaves and keep them to cool and waits for the customers who come as early as 6 am. By 6.30 the home deliveries start.
Simon’s poees are thick, soft, fluffy and full of husk. If you come early with a bag, you can get nice hot poees, so piping hot you can barely pick them with your fingers and drop then into your bag. The aroma of the sur and the freshly baked bread is absolutely delicious. He also bakes the other Goan favourites like Kankon (bangles), Katri, and white bread. On Sundays, he bakes yummy crispy beef patties. Pass by the bakery on Sunday mornings and you won’t be able to resist the yummy aroma of fresh baked patties.