A Tiny Island, a Large Bread

A treasure from Portugal

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Photo: Something Natural

The Treasure of Nantucket

By Jeremy Fuchs

On the island of Nantucket, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, the locals line up for a particular sort of bread. It’s not indigenous to the island, but it’s been here for centuries.

It’s called Portuguese bread. Don’t get it confused with the more popular and much sweeter massa sovada. This more rustic “Portuguese bread” is pretty much confined to New England.

Given that New England is more or less a straight shot by boat from Portugal, there has long been a large Portuguese population in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and surrounding areas. The annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford, Mass., is the largest Portuguese festival in the world, and some 320,000 Portuguese folks currently live in Massachusetts. Fall River, famous for being the hometown of Emeril Lagasse, is a remarkable 43.9% Portuguese. 

The bread is one of the gifts of this mass emigration. It’s a rustic loaf, made with water and sometimes milk powder. It doesn’t have the jagged crust of a typical French bread, but it has just enough bite to feel substantial. It has a yellowish hue, a soft texture, and a slightly sweet, but not cloying, taste. It’s the ultimate in daily bread, perfect for sandwiches and dippage.

Here’s the problem: You can’t really get this bread outside of New England. But on Nantucket, it’s everywhere: at every sandwich shop, at every grocery store. As ubiquitous as a bagel in Manhattan. This makes sense, as many Portuguese immigrants ended up on this tiny island. (There’s an old saying that if you look straight into the distance from a Nantucket beach, you’ll see Portugal.) You’ll see tons of linguiça sausage on every menu, including the linguiça-crusted cod at Oran Mor. Brant Point Grill has a dish with a salt cod fritter, a fried-up mixture of salted cod, potato, onion, and garlic. Queequeg’s has a Portuguese fisherman’s stew on the menu.

By and large, though, it’s the bread that steals the show. Portuguese bread would take off if it were more mainstream. But one of its calling cards is its rareness, the feeling of slicing into a secret. Sometimes the best-hidden gems are best kept hidden. 🇵🇹

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