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Get Baked! Making Portuguese sweetbread with Kona Historical Society

A loaf of just-out-of-the-oven Portuguese sweetbread is ready to cool at Kona Historical Society's weekly stone-oven baking.

It’s 6 a.m., Thursday, in 
Kealakekua. The sun has yet to break through the morning haze lazing over the small town on the slopes of dormant Hualālai volcano, just south of Kailua-Kona. Not a car is in sight on Māmalahoa Highway, winding through town.

On the pastures below the Kona Historical Society’s H.N. Greenwell Store Museum, however, two bakers—one in jeans and a red palaka (checkered) apron, the other in a sweatshirt and backward-turned cap—have been awake for some time. Under a corrugated metal roof held up by logs sits a large, igloo-shaped, wood-fired oven they have just begun heating up. In four hours, at 10 a.m., visitors will begin gathering here for a morning of hands-on instruction on the craft of traditional Portuguese bread making. It’s a longtime weekly custom in Kealakekua.

“This is definitely a real resource for the community,” says Kona Historical Society executive director Joy Holland, herself once a Thursday a.m. bread baker. “People from all over come specifically for this and they love the experience. Even many residents have no idea about the Portuguese experience here. They worked as cattle ranchers and dairy farmers.”

As it turned out, they also baked some amazing bread.

In the 1870s, Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and Madeira began arriving on the Kona Coast to help develop and manage dairies for the Big Island’s nascent ranching industry. Many of them were also stonemasons, as skilled in building pens and paddocks for cattle as they were in constructing outdoor ovens, the latter an important fixture of daily community and family life in their former homeland. In these ovens, they began to bake the soft, airy, slightly sweet bread now familiar in bakeries, grocery stores and restaurants statewide.

While Portuguese sweetbread, mass produced by commercial bakeries, is found everywhere in Hawai‘i, hive-type stone ovens like the one at the Kona Historical Society are hardly the fixtures they once were. Sharing this essential part of the 
Portuguese culture with visitors was a major reason the Kona Historical Society, a community-based nonprofit with a mission to perpetuate the history of the Kona coast, decided eight years ago to build a traditional stone oven of its own.

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