A special variety of pan dulce in northern Nuevo León honors generations of gastronomic heritage
Outside of La Superior bakery in the small town of Bustamante, Nuevo León, Lázaro Casso de Luna stands under a tin roof, using a broom made of dry branches to sweep away the ashes from an adobe oven. In the cold mid-February air, the smell of freshly baked bread mixes with that of burning walnut wood.
Casso de Luna calls to the women inside the bakery, announcing that the oven will soon be ready. He has never used a thermometer; he just knows from the heat on his face. “It’s all approximations, there’s no exactitude,” he says. He gestures to the small, beehive-shaped oven. “And sometimes he throws burning embers at me, and I ask him: Are you angry?”
Casso de Luna built the oven—and a second one right next to it—by hand. At 68, he tends the fire every day.
Casso de Luna’s daughter and stepdaughter start carrying out metal trays, fourteen total, filled with small tender loaves known as pan de semita, or just “semita.” Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, the sweet bread has a unique flavor. It’s made with anise, piloncillo (raw cane sugar), raisins and walnuts. Its name comes from “Semite”—a term referring to the people and languages of ancient southwest Asia, including Hebrews, Arabs, and Phoenecians— in Bustamante, semita bread has taken on a new meaning over the years. It’s now a family heirloom shared by an entire pueblo.
Casso de Luna slides a rustic shovel underneath each tray and carries it to the oven, making sure no loose embers will burn the bread, before placing them inside. Then he starts moving the trays around like puzzle pieces so that each bread “loaf” receives the same amount of heat.
La Superior is one of 15 bakeries in Bustamante, a town of nearly 4,000, with quaint streets lined with walnut trees. Bustamante is known for its traditional breads—semitas, conchas, polcas, hojarascas, and empanadas (pumpkin, pineapple, and walnut). The baking of these breads is a practice passed down from generation to generation.
Casso de Luna’s daughter, María Elena, left her job in a city court six years ago to join the family business. Her father made her knead the bread dough over and over again until she got the right consistency. When her mother passed away in late 2022, María Elena became the head baker alongside her aunt and stepsister. She has been proposing new ideas to her father, like a cinnamon roll she saw on TikTok. Once she perfected the recipe, her father approved it, and now it’s one of their best sellers.
But Casso de Luna’s priority is not to offer new products, but to maintain the quality and flavor of the region’s traditional breads. Many of La Superior’s loyal customers have been buying the family’s bread for years. He wants them to experience the same flavor as on their first visit, and to show the same reaction–the one in which they close their eyes after taking the first bite, he says.
“What we do is preserve the tradition. Our grandmothers used to make bread for us in an oven smaller than this one,” he says, pointing to one of the adobe ovens. “Everything I saw as a child I use it here.”
Casso de Luna describes himself as a “humble panadero.” He studied industrial chemical engineering for two college semesters but when one of his sisters got sick, he quit to financially support his family. His older sisters eventually opened a bakery, but when they were denied a loan to buy a gas oven, their father, a construction worker, suggested they use the wood-burning oven he had built for his mother, their grandmother. Years later, when Casso de Luna got married, he knew he would have to provide for his own family. His sisters gave him their blessing to open his own bakery. What might have seemed like a disadvantage has become the family’s greatest asset: they now own and operate the only two bakeries in Bustamante that use in wood-fired ovens.
Like Casso de Luna, San Juana Olivo Pérez didn’t see herself owning her own bakery. For 19 years, she worked at La Especial, one of the oldest and most famous bakeries in Bustamante. There, she learned the recipes for many of Bustamante’s favorite, traditional breads. But when her husband fell ill, Olivo had to resign to take care of him.
To help her own well being, Olivo turned to what she knew. “I said, Well, why don’t I make bread for myself?” says Olivo.
She started making bread in her kitchen and venturing out to sell it on the street with the help of her children. Sometimes they even traveled to Monterrey, 75 kilometers away, to sell her bread. As demand increased, Olivo’s kitchen became too small, so she converted an area of her patio into a bakery, which she called La Ermita in honor of a small chapel nearby.
Now La Ermita, the bakery, has become a destination for both locals and tourists. Currently, Olivo’s daughter, Janeth, is in charge, as Olivo is caretaking her own father. But Olivo takes every opportunity to sneak into the kitchen or tend to loyal customers who come for the best-selling pumpkin empanadas and pan de semita.
“I eat everything,” says Olivo, letting out a laugh. “Sometimes I tell my daughter that I’m quality control. I have to test everything.”
Bustamante has long been known for its wells as its caves and its springs—and for pan de semita. The recipe dates to the 16th century, when a group of Sephardic Jews colonized Nuevo León. The tradition of baking semita bread is linked to the arrival of the Tlaxcaltecas, founding settlers of the town, and the introduction of wheat. The bakers from Bustamante often share this history, but their origin stories of the bread are often linked with that of their own families. There’s no semita bread without the people from Bustamante.
“Semita was the most traditional thing that was done here because I think everyone knows how to do semita,” says Bertha Santos of La Especial bakery. “I say it’s a fusion of cultures, both Spanish and Jewish, because well, just the word ‘Semitic’ right?”
With its bright fuchsia façade, La Especial is one of the most noticeable buildings in the town’s centro. It was founded in 1970 by Santos’ mother, Argelia González, who had been selling bread for twenty years before opening the brick-and-mortar building. At one point González employed nearly 30 people there.
Santos learned to bake bread by observing her mother, who corrected her along the way. After retiring from her career as a doctor, Santos now manages La Especial. Her own daughter, Silvia, travels every weekend from Monterrey to help.
Baking bread is one of Bustamante’s steadiest sources of employment. Santos says women keep joining the business, helping to boost family income. And despite the abundance of bakeries in the small town, there is a spirit of respect and cooperation.
“There is no rivalry between us because we are such a small community that we all know each other,” says Santos. “The day we see each other as a competition, we’ll lose a lot as human beings. The best thing is to have very good relationships and to not lose the local customs. Yes, it is a business, but it is the culture, the tradition, the community.”
Chantal Flores is a freelance journalist based in Monterrey, Mexico.