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I’m walking down a long street in sunny Lisbon, following my nose. It’s leading me to the Gleba bakery, where Diogo Amorim, a 21-year-old baker with a CV that takes in some of the world’s best kitchens is busy doing what bakers love to do. He's on a mission resurrect traditonal Portuguese bread culture and currently, with the help of three staff, is the only baker in Lisbon making bread from 100% Portuguese grains.
“Here in Portugal we depend 98% on grains from other countries because we’re not very competitive in mass production,” Amorim tells me, brushing flour from his hands. “We have lots of very local, traditional old grain varieties, [but] most farmers in small villages are using modern, more productive varieties. They quit.”
These traditional grains are “genius, amazing, very unique,” says Amorim, selected over generations to make the best bread. It was difficult to find farmers to work with he says, but “The corns we have here, I’ve never seen anything like them ... I’m working on stimulating those farmers to keep producing these fantastic varieties.”
The Gleba team produces three different loaves: a coarse broa, made with predominately white corns sourced from Minho in the Northwest of the country, a green rye bread, and a smooth, light wheat bread, both made from grains from the Trás-os-Montes region, also in the north. All are sourdoughs. “We don’t use commercial yeast here in the bakery at all – all breads are naturally leavened,” he says.
You won’t find any commercial flour either: all grains are milled in-house. “Industrial flour is like coffee that has been proud for weeks or even months, it doesn’t smell like anything,” says Amorim. “It’s very old, it’s much more stable, it loses all that character. When you work with flour that has just been milled a couple of hours ago, it’s mind blowing – really tasty and aromatic. We wouldn’t be able to work solely with Portuguese grains if we bought flour.”
But it’s stressful working with farmers that only produce very small quantities of grain, plus Amorim has a young child. Sleep, seemingly, is a luxury this young baker can ill afford. “I’m always a bit stressed out – am I going to have enough grain for tomorrow or for the next month?” he says. “It’s very hard work: such an innovative, artisanal project is very demanding.”
Amorim first realised the true gastronomic potential of bread whilst undertaking a six-month stage at The Fat Duck in Bray. Though he “never baked a loaf there” it was through conversations with other chefs in the three Michelin star restaurant’s development kitchens, shortly before the team relocated to Melbourne sans Amorim – “very professional, knowledgeable people” – that his bread obsession truly took hold. “Probably, if I hadn’t gone to The Fat Duck, I wouldn’t be baking bread right now,” he says.
I’ve heard a rumour, I tell him, that his sourdough starter is actually from The Fat Duck itself?
“No it was from about a year before that,” he says. “I already made bread at home, but I started to think more deeply about it at The Fat Duck.”
Returning to Portugal – he grew up in Vila Nova de Gaia, to the south of Porto – he headed to Lisbon, via a stint at the two Michelin star Villa Joya restaurant on the Algarve, to take up a Masters in Gastronomic Sciences. Arriving in a city that was waking up gastronomically amid a renewed pride in the country’s larder, Amorim sensed “an opportunity to make better bread” in Lisbon, where “99.999% of bakeries make really crappy bread,” he says. “If you go to countries like Italy, there is more care for maintaining and preserving traditions than here in Portugal. A lot of the time even the eldest people don’t give a shit, they do what’s easiest.
“[But] people are starting to get more sensitive to good food and ingredients that not only taste good, but are good for your health, good for the world and sustainable,” says Amorim.
He has no business partners and lives a short walk away from the bakery, so he can pop home in the afternoon to spend quality time with his wife and son. “I have a very small baby who I’m very proud of. I want to teach him to follow his dreams and be a fighter, do whatever it takes to get to where you want to be,” he says.
What’s the betting his son’s first word is ‘pão,’ the Portuguese word for bread?