The Best Sourdough in Cuenca

Making Bread

Fresh flour, a little bit of water, a little bit of salt, and pinch of la madremasa madre or sour dough starter– and time form the basis of Mario Ñauta’s sourdough bread business, Tosta Gastropub in Cuenca. Twice a day – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – Ñauta mixes these ingredients to form a rich dough and lets it rise for 15 hours. He forms this leavened sourdough into loaf rounds, croissants and cinnamon rolls, among other sweet and savory goods, lets them rise from 2 to 20 hours, and bakes them golden.

Sourdough Starter

That’s the process that Mario Ñauta, a 27- year old Cuenca native, uses to bake his breads. Yet, arriving to this point was a process in and of itself.

Two years ago Ñauta started baking breads with commercial-grade baker’s yeast, flour, lard and eggs, as is typical in Cuenca and Ecuador. He sold these goods to tiendas and schools around the city. Business was going well, but Mario wanted to do something different, add a distinct element to bread baking in the city. He had heard about sourdough breads and researched recipes online. He was struck by its simplicity and the health benefits of eating sourdough bread rather than those using store bought yeast. He became enamored by sourdough’s place in history, seemingly present since humans started cultivating grains.

Ñauta created a sourdough starter* and baked a few loaves for his family. They didn’t like it. Luckily, his regular clients at the tiendas and schools did. On the other hand, Ñauta realized that because of the extra time the sourdough process takes he was losing money selling it for the same price he sold convention breads. He had to make a shift in order to stay in business.

Ñauta had been baking out of his home. He rented a storefront along Calle Larga and Tomas Ordonez in the

Sourdough starter

Center and opened a café, Taita, with his cousin, Jose. They began experimenting with the sourdough process using quinoa, rye (centeno), and barley (machica) flours. The public liked it, and was willing to pay a fair price.

Last October, Ñauta parted from Taita and opened Tosta Gastropub, located at Ave. Solano 6-44 and Remigio Crespo, just below Solano Suites. It’s a busy intersection, but the bakery is a quiet and cozy reprieve, which Ñauta liked. He later realized that the building’s adobe architecture and the shop’s subterranean setup insulated the sourdough enabling the dough to rise well.

Sourdough, the Definition

sourdough loaf

Sourdough starters – water and flour left at room temperature for several days – capture 100s of natural lactobacilli (bacterias) and 100s of natural fungi (yeast) from the air. The yeasts break down the flour starches creating 3 things – sugar, carbon dioxide and alcohol (fermentation), which makes bubbles and naturally leavens the bread.

Bacteria that thrive in sourdough also eat up the starches in the flour, which creates lactic and acetic acids, giving sourdough its namesake flavor. Sugar and yeasts are added ingredients to conventional breads, so yeast eat the added sugars rather than flour starches. The added yeast in conventional breads allows the dough to rise quicker and there’s little chance for the dough to release acids and acquire a sour tang.

Variety – The Spice of Sourdough

Bread Day Mario’s currently experimenting baking with amaranth flour. He gets excited talking about this perennial cereal because of its historical connection pre-Colombian, indigenous identity in the region; baking with it, for Ñauta, becomes an act of food sovereignty and decolonization. Even though his craft requires few ingredients there are several factors that can influence how each loaf turns out. Ñauta leavens the dough in wooden bowls rather than the metal sheet pans to avoid a metallic taste to the bread. Mario also has to watch the weather. Depending on outside temperature and precipitation he varies the amount of flour, water and time to create a good batch of bread.

So, for the moment, as Cuenca temps drop he’s leaving breads to rise longer. Eventually, Ñauta to wants grow and process the grains and cereals he uses, and learn sourdough techniques from bakers around the world. In the meantime, he enjoys sharing his work with loyal customers, and is trying to introduce and educate Cuencanos about the value of sourdough bread in a city where it is only recently available. He iterates that the sourdough process is as simple, natural and eternal as the fermentation that creates wine and beer. It’s all a part of his process.

Taste Test

Apple Cinnamon Bread

The apple and cinnamon stars are the bakery’s best seller and with reason. They’re stretchy, light and flaky. The dough has a slight salt that complements the natural sweet of the apple. My favorite is the French loaf. It has a classic crunchy crust that reveals a tender, airy middle when you break it open. Ñauta, “Checo” Israel, Darwin Campos or David Castro, who all work at Tosta can help you decide which bread, sandwich or salad will best please your palate. They’re working to include other fermented products – beer and wine – on the menu.

Tosta Pub Cuenca

The small, open-floor plan at Tosta Gastropub allows you to watch Ñauta bake, smell the sourdough fermentation, and eat your bread, too.

Tosta Gastropub
Pass the Remigio Crespo roundabout as you’re walking away from the city, on your left side; it is the bottom part of a white building. Look for the blue doors and shutters.
Ave. Solano 6-44 and Remigio Crespo, just below Solano Suites
(593) 98 334 1648

*Nauta’s sourdough starter recipe:

1. Mix well 50 gram of water and 50 grams of white flour in a large glass bowl until there are no lumps.
2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm, dry place, but not under direct sunlight. Make sure the bowl is large enough so that as the dough rises and bubbles it won’t touch the plastic wrap.
3. After 24 hours add another 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour until there are no lumps.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm, dry place, but not under direct sunlight.
5. On the third day you should have about 200 grams of dough. Remove 100 grams and throw this away (or share with a friend).
6. To the remaining 100 grams of dough add 50 grams of water 50 grams of flour until consistent. Cover bowl with plastic wrap.
7. On the fourth day, repeat steps #5 and #6.
8. On day 5 your sourdough starter is ready. It should have a pancake batter consistency.

Erin Fiorini is a researcher, writer, photographer, and mentor with the nonprofit Global Citizen Year. You can find her working in coffee shops in Cuenca.