A sweet Portuguese tradition

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EAST CAMBRIDGE — You might walk right past Central Bakery without knowing there’s a behemoth workroom just beyond the glass cases in the front. There, year round, bakers churn out Portuguese sweet breads and rolls.

At Easter, the round sweet breads are made with more sugar and more butter and baked with a hard-cooked egg and a decorative braid. Some of these breads are sold at local supermarkets, but the bulk go to hundreds of loyal Portuguese customers who wouldn’t think of having Easter without the breads they call “folar ” in Portuguese .

“I have a lot of customers who buy several loaves and ship them as gifts all over the country to relatives who have moved away,” says co-owner Michael Vital.

Central, which has been in business since 1919, makes over 2,000 loaves with more than 14,000 eggs just for Easter week . Vital was 16 in 1981, when he started working for his father, who owned the bakery. Michael purchased the bakery in 1995 with John Carvalho and Tony Medeiros.

Maria Nunes, who works at Central, sees how excited customers are when they come in for the rounds. “The bread is so good that people are tearing off pieces and eating it in the car, on their way home,” she says. Nunes grew up on Saint Michael in the Azores. “My grandmother used to make all of us kids special breads. Mine was in the shape of a doll and the egg was the face. The boys got a heart or round with the egg in the center.” The egg is not just for decoration. She explains that people who didn’t have enough to eat considered an egg a treat.

As to the significance of the egg, Vital says, “Tradition, I guess.”

“Do you know?” he asks Nunes and Jose Vicente, a carpenter doing some renovation for the bakery. Both shrug and offer this: “Tradition!”

Vital speculates that the Rev. Jose S. Ferreira , pastor at Saint Anthony’s, might know.

Saint Anthony’s, or Igreja de Santo Antonio, is a modern building a block from the bakery. Ferreira, who comes from Vila Verde in the north of Portugal, has been at Saint Anthony’s for over 14 years. The meaning of the egg inside the bread, he says, is indeed tradition. “Spring, in nature, is the beginning of new life. Easter is a time of renewal and the Resurrection . The egg is the beginning of life.”

With that and good bread in mind, customers crowd Central Bakery this week for loaves. Some contain up to six eggs, and those are surely saved for special meals. For eating in the car on the way home, there are breads with a single egg baked inside.

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