• 2023.06.13
  • Festa dos Merendeiros (the Bread Festival)
My town of Santo Isidoro holds a bread festival called the Festa dos Merendeiros each year. The church in the center of the town holds mass, and distributes bread afterwards.

Some 1700 years ago, this area suffered from a prolonged drought. Quality grains wouldn’t grow. The farmers prayed to their patron saint, Saint Isidore, vowing to hold a festival on his feast day and serve bread to whoever came if he granted them an abundant harvest.
Fortunately, it was a good harvest year, and the people kept their promise by holding an annual celebration and distributing bread.

In front of the church during the festival, the men bake bread and the woman kneads the dough

In the old days, a horse-drawn cart piled with grain would circle the church three times, but these days they set up a huge stage on the church grounds and hold a giant mass. When the mass is over, the church bell sounds three times, indicating that it’s time to serve the bread.
Today, the church places bread in bread bags left by local families beforehand and hands them back out. The bread bags are typically handmade—cloth drawstring bags embroidered with pão, the Portuguese word for bread. The Portuguese have a longstanding tradition of placing the day’s bread in these drawstring bags, and bringing them with them to bakeries to collect their bread.

Bread bag

Biting into some chorizo-stuffed bread in front of the bakery

Mafra has long been famous for bread.
Today, the rustic bread made in Mafra is known as Pão de Mafra. It’s tied to both the good growing conditions in the region and to the sociocultural background of the city.
Centuries of fertile farmland in this area make it perfect for growing wheat, as well as an abundance of vegetables, fruit, and livestock—which it supplies to Lisbon and the surrounding area. It’s also close to the ocean, which brings windy weather conditions that the people have taken advantage of by constructing numerous windmills. The windmills were used to power stone flour mills and produce wheat flour.
The women lovingly knead the dough, and it’s the men’s job to build the stone ovens and bake the bread in them. This kind of breadmaking is typically done in the homes of local villagers, and the knowledge is passed down from parent to child.

Every one of these elements is essential to create Pão de Mafra. The homestyle bread made by local families gradually became a favorite in Lisbon, and these days you can find it at any bakery, sold as either Pão de Mafra or Pão Saloio (peasant bread).

Pão de Mafra has a plain look and flavor. Because it’s baked over a fire, the outside is hard with burn flecks here and there, while the inside is chewy and soft. It’s made from the same ingredients as other kinds of bread, but I think the unique part is how long they let it ferment during the preparation process, giving it a springy texture.

Mafra windmill (Source: Wikipedia)

Pão de Mafra (Source: Wikipedia)

In the area where I live, bread is still baked in the traditional way. Of course they don’t use the windmill-powered stone flour mills anymore, but bread ovens are common in homes, and a typical Portuguese family will bake bread every day.

The bread oven in our kitchen. I’ve never once used it successfully. I probably need more practice!


  • Megumi Ota
  • JobConservator, interpreter, and coordinator / Insitu (restoration), Kaminari-sama / Novajika, and others

I’m a conservator and preservationist living in Portugal. I specialize primarily in paintings (murals) and gold leaf design, and am involved with UNESCO World Heritage structures as well as the interior of the Palace of Belém. I derive great satisfaction from having close ties to my community in the rural village near the Silver Coast where I live. My hobby is gardening.

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