The mollete is one of the few traditional breads that have remained popular without losing ground to baguettes or chapatas. It's soft (the name mollete comes from the Latin 'mollis' meaning soft) and spongy inside - the perfect texture to mop up any fat - and has a crust which goes crispy when toasted. The mollete is "genius" according to David Llamas, runner-up in the 2019 Spanish Bakery Championship and a fan of traditional Andalusian bread.
He adds that "molletes were the first part-baked bread that we know of. Berber shepherds used to part-bake bread so that it could be easily transported and cooking could be finished over an open fire".
This theory is very plausible as the origin of the mollete is not completely documented. What is known is the enormous importance of bread in Al-Ándalus and the huge variety which were made, although generally the breads were small in size. It is also known that it was customary to scent bread with seeds and spices. Molletes from Álcala de los Gazules in Cádiz and Marchena in Seville contained anise seeds and sesame seeds respectively.
Although the Antequera mollete has been the ambassador of this type of bread, there are molletes made in all parts of Andalucía, although they are especially worshipped in the countryside of Malaga, Seville, the Serrania de Ronda, the Janda region and the mountains of Cadiz.
"We often forget that where there are now olive trees there were once fields of cereals," explains Alonso Navarro, farmer and president of the RED Andaluza de Semillas, who goes on to say, "I am from Alozaina and when I was a child there were two flour mills and they both made molletes."
The Mollete de Antequera has recently been given Indicación Geográfica Protegida (IGP) protected status and the word mollete appears in an old family recipe from 1539. In reality the popularity of the Antequera mollete didn't take off until the second half of the twentieth century. Charo Carmona, chef and owner of restaurant Arte de Cozina, located in Calle Calzado in the town, remembers the street vendors of his childhood shouting "molletes calentitos".
"Molletillos calentillos para los viejos sin dientecillos," (warm molletes for old people with no teeth) adds Rosario Paradas Palacios, current owner of Horno San Roque bakery, which until recently was run by her father, Antonio Paradas Torres, and is one of the last bastions of handmade molletes in the town. Rosario still makes them by hand and cooks up to 9,000 a week in a wood oven to be sold locally.
Her grandfather was Juan Paradas Pérez, a farm labourer who in 1949 started to make molletes, renting an oven by the hour. His wife was responsible for selling them in the streets of the town, but as they became popular people would come and buy them off him to sell door to door.
In 1957 Juan Parada Pérez was able to build his own oven. "In Antequera all the bakers made molletes but that family were the first to specialise," explains Juan Manuel Vegas, owner of Bienmesabe restaurant in Malaga and Bienmesabe Santa María restaurant in Antequera. He recalls, "in the 80s, when we were youngsters 'out on the town', we would finish the evening waiting for bars like El Sevilla or El Pañero to open so that we could eat a mollete before going to bed."
In 1987, another grandchild, Juan Paradas Palacios, began industrial production and introduced several innovations and new formats, (molletes were originally bigger). His company, Mollete San Roque, S. A. (www.mollete.com), nowadays produces around 50,000 units per day, supplies supermarkets in Andalucía and Extremadura, sells online, exports to Saudi Arabia and works with another local giant, El Antequerano. El Antequerano promotes the IGP Mollete de Antequera which was recently endorsed by the European Commission just at a time when the mollete is expanding its territory like a spreading pool of oil.
José Ruiz Bolaños is a distributor of several brands, some small bakeries like Dulce Nombre, more artisanal, and others of industrial dimensions. "I was one of the pioneer companies for the promotion of molletes; I have been doing it for 30 years. At first molletes outside of Malaga were believed to be sweet to dip in coffee. Now they are in demand all over Spain and the great challenge for the factories is to create conservation systems that guarantee freshness, like the deep-frozen one developed by El Antequerano," he says.
But at a time when the white and floury roll is more popular than ever, a group of romantics headed by Carlos Mateos, gourmet, director of 'ABC Gurmé Málaga' and respected influencer, set out to return to the roots and, with the hasthag #comandomollete, began to look for worthwhile molletes and to post them on Instagram. "It started as a game between friends and then people joined in and contributed with their discoveries," he says. With 41,500 followers on this network, Carlos Mateos catapulted to fame bakers like Pedro Heras, from Bakery Máximo in Benaoján, whose enormous artisan molletes took him a year to perfect and whose secret he intends to take to his grave. Courted by restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona as well as in Malaga, he can select his clients and continues delivering to the bars and bakeries in his village and the surrounding area.
"The mollete is a blessing and a nightmare, because it is a very wet dough, sometimes at 90%, that you have to cover with flour because otherwise it is impossible to handle and it takes a long time to ferment. For me, mollete making is what I do. Here, Antequera's style is called molleta," says Heras.
In the province, the molletes from Archidona are also famous (especially those of Panadería El Perrillo), or those from the Hermanos Gil bakery in Montejaque. If you don't want to go back and forth (or if you can't, in these circumstances), José Palma's Panadería La Mallorquina stocks those from Dulce Nombre (Antequera), El Perrillo (Archidona) and on weekends, those from Máximo (Benaoján).
Tastes vary as to how to serve them. "I like to toast them lightly on the outside and leave the inside warm but hydrated and soft," says Juan Manuel Vegas, who points out another way of eating them: "Sometimes we open them up and hollow them out like pita bread to fill them, and then we toast them already filled."
In Bienmesabe and Bienmesabe Santa María they are sometimes served whole with oxtail stew or split with puchero.
For breakfast in Antequera, try the molletes from the A la Fuerza café and those from the bar of the Hotel Castilla. Charo Carmona has various molletes on the menu of Arte de Tapas: for dipping, 'tartare' morcilla (black sausage) with apple and mango sauce, with chorizo, with caramelised onions and pepper mayonnaise and with homemade cured sausage with his father's own dressing. "They are all served hot with a little oil, the mollete cries out for it," he says.
In Malaga the bar owner Ignacio González, owner of El Huesca, has chosen molletes as his inspiration and offers twelve varieties, including a very seductive shrimp pilpil with extra virgin olive oil soaking into the bread.
Everyone agrees that molletes benefit from adding oil or by having greasy fillings.
José Simón, commercial director of La Dehesa de los Monteros and member of the Academia Malagueña de Gastronomía (AGM), says, "I like Máximo's mollete. I only toast it on the outside in a pan, and I like it with bacon from our hams and a touch of mustard or piparritas (hot peppers), or with Finca La Torre olive oil and salt," he says. The president of the AGM, Manuel Tornay, opts for a filling of jamón iberíco, "always with extra virgin olive oil," and for breakfast he recommends those in the Venta El Corte at Las Pedrizas.
Carlos Mateos confesses he is a purist. "I don't like just any mollete. Craftsmen like those from Máximo or Horno de San Roque are increasingly difficult to find in the province, although there are areas in the Sierra de Cádiz and Seville with excellent molletes," he says. When it comes to toasting them it depends on each mollete, "if it's flat then only on the outside, if it's fat then split and toasted on both sides". He likes them from the Máximo bakery served with a good zurrapa (meat pate). His favourite molletes are from Venta San Isidro (Los Llanos, Antequera), Laralba (Archidona), El Frenazo III (Montecorto) and those in Bar Fiesta of the Mercado Central in Marbella.
Marbella chef Dani García is also a big fan of the mollete and José Palma, owner of La Mallorquina in Malaga, enjoys them especially at home on his days off. He is split between the classic olive oil or buttered with cooked ham, "toasted on the outside and hot so the butter melts". Mmm! Long live the mollete!