The thing I missed most when I moved to the Azores was bread. Of course, there were many bakeries here, who all did the things that the children liked – light as a feather papa seco and the traditional muffin with that touch of sweetness bolo levedo. What I wanted, however, was the chewy taste of a sourdough loaf, massa mãe, as they call it in Portugal, which has, in the last years, become hugely popular in the UK. This bread made without chemical yeast, in a traditional manner, with a starter simply made of flour and water and left to sit for some days. It has a richness and depth to it that means it is hard to return to the everyday industrial loaves that supermarkets mostly sell. It had not, it appeared, arrived in the Azores yet, so I tried to make this bread at home. It was difficult and I had a number of pancake-like failures. It turned out I was not a natural baker so I returned to what I knew I was good at. Research. After a few conversations with some internet trawling, I found at least one reason why traditional style massa mãe wheat bread was difficult to get hold of in São Miguel. It had never actually existed here. The traditional bread of the Azores was cornbread. Locals would grow their own corn, before taking it to a miller to be milled into flour and then return home with it to cook it in wood-fired ovens to be eaten over the course of a few days. I met many people in their sixties who had grown up eating only with this kind of bread and almost all of them spoke of it in the same wistful way in which I talked of my sourdough. I began a new search, not for fashionable London bread but loaves made out of corn, and this was how I met João Ferreira Viveiros, the 84 year old miller of Capelas, who still goes everyday to his beautiful mill in the centre of the town, with his two stone mills which are encased in warm yellow wood. Stepping into his mill really does feel like stepping back to a different time, there is a dusty cloudy feel to the air, from all the flour I imagine, but it gives a soft, beauty to the place and the João himself. We spoke from some time and he lamented the passing of his mother’s cornbread, gave me the instructions of how to make it, which I politely listened to knowing full well I would never be able to make it, before asking him which bakery he sends his cornflour to be baked. There are several in the area but he gave me a tip – padaria Santana. This is a secret hole in the wall of a bakery, a simple house with peeling paint on a small Capelas side road, no sign needed to keep it’s steady stream of loyal local customers coming daily for its excellent biscuits, cinnamon rolls, papa seco and, thankfully, their delicious loaf of pure cornbread, made from flour milled in the traditional way on Senhor Viveiros’ beautiful old stones. It’s this bread which has now happily filled the bread hole in my life.
Interviewer: Could you tell me your name please, and when you were born?
João Viveiros: I was born in 1938, and I am João Ferreira Viveiros.
Interviewer: Which neighbourhood were you born in? Are you from here?
João Viveiros: I was born in Santo António, which was called Além Capelas in those days. My father was António de Oliveira Viveiros, and my mother Maria de Lurdes Ferreira
Interviewer: And your parents were from here too?
João Viveiros: My father bought this mill and I’ve been here since I was eleven years old. I left school with the fourth grade
Interviewer: That’s a long time! Tell me some more about your family.
João Viveiros: Well, my family. My father had nine sons, we were nine brothers. My older brother went to study and became an engineer, but I have never been anything but a miller. I liked to mess with the mill, the motor in stone mill. My father wanted me to go and study but I just wanted to stay here in the mill.
Interviewer: Could you please talk a little about the mill where we are now?
João Viveiros: I started at eleven years old with my father. We worked all day long. We started in the morning and went on until so late at night. Now I do my daily job in two hours. Nobody does cornbread at home anymore, now people only eat wheat bread and other new things. There is no future in this mill for anyone!
Interviewer: Exactly how many years were you working here in the mill? It must be many years.
João Viveiros: I need to do the maths! I was 11 now I am 84, so I am working here for 73 years old!
Interviewer: Wow! So long! It’s a lifetime! Which part of your work do you enjoy most?
João Viveiros: My favourite part was to grind all the corn and have something to sell. There is not enough work here now for it to give me much money. You can no longer receive wages from here. I’m here not to be home. This is the end. When I can’t do it anymore, the mill ends.
Interviewer: Ah, that’s sad. Perhaps things will change. Tell me, is there is some part of your job that you don’t like?
João Viveiros: The part that I don’t like is having to suffer the customers! And when they want credit. I don’t like it much when people don’t pay. I don’t like it at all. It’s so little money that if they don’t pay me I’m bankrupt.
Interviewer: No, that’s not good at all. Please tell me about the people that come here to mill with you. Is it just corn?
João Viveiros: In the old times there were many people that grew corn in the house and came here to grind it to make flour and to cook bread at home. In the old times, you see, we ate cornbread, not wheat bread as today. Today there is not so much corn. Most of it is for cows and I have to order white corn from outside to make the flour for bread. I lot of things come from the outside these days.
Interviewer: So the food people eat here has changed a lot,?
João Viveiros: It changed a lot. People used to bring their own corn to grind and to make their own bread but not anymore. In the old times there was one bakery with wheat bread for Capelas, Sto António e Santa Barbara – a whole area of the island – but now we have a lot of these bakeries, although in fact two have already closed.
Interviewer: In England people are starting to eat cornbread now because it is healthy and does not contain gluten.
João Viveiros: Yes, it is healthy. Especially when it is made in people´s home. The bread from the bakeries is not very healthy. Bakers put in a lot of yeast, and the next day the bread is hard
Interviewer: Do you know how to make cornbread at home?
João Viveiros: No I don’t. I saw my mother cooking it. At that time the yeast was homemade made from the bread itself and left for next time. The bread was kneaded, it fermented, and only then it went to the oven, I saw my mother making it, it was like this. It was all done by hand. Now in the bakery, it’s all with machines.
Interviewer: Do the bakeries use your flour or do they use flour from the outside?
João Viveiros: The bakeries around here use my corn – Santana bakery and Santo António bakery.
Interviewer: Yes, we love the cornbread from Santana bakery. It is very good! I didn’t know it was made from your corn, that is why it taste so good.
João Viveiros: Yes, they bake in a good way.
Interviewer: Please tell me a little about Capelas and this neighbourhood, how it’s changed. You’ve been here your whole life?
João Viveiros: I have lived here in Capelas since I married. My father bought a house when I got married, I went to live there and today I am still in the same house, for now god willing. It’s on the street near Paparoça pizza.
Interviewer: You just had local people coming here in the fast. Do you have many foreigners coming here these days?
João Viveiros: Yes, there is, a lot. They usually stay at the door and I invite them to come in and see the mill.
Interviewer: What do think about so many foreigners, like me, coming to live here in the Azores?
João Viveiros: Well it’s nice that the tourists come here and appreciate the mill. It’s good. There are young boys from Capelas that don’t even know about the mill, that never come here! In the old days everyone used to come here, men, women, boys and girls bringing and taking corn. Nowadays nobody comes anymore
Interviewer: I’m sorry for that. Today in my country we take great value in places such as this which show us how things were before in the past but there are very few mills like yours in England today. We have lost them because we learnt to value them too late.
João Viveiros: Around this area there were three mills like this one. The other two are already closed. The mills in Santo Antonio have closed too, and in Santa Barbara. This is the end.
Interviewer: I hope it isn’t. What about your children? Would they like to run the mill? What do they do?
João Viveiros: I have two sons and one daughter, there are employed and are not coming here, there is no future here. My daughter is on the mainland. She went to study at Covilhão University and stayed there. She is a bank manager at BBI. My other son is topographer and the other is employed in an insurance company. You can’t get a proper paycheck here. They would starve but they help me when I cannot work.
Interviewer: Do they like to work at the mill?
João Viveiros: One of the boys works here and knows how to do it, but the other is a topographer and he doesn’t know anything about the mill. They’re not like me that used to love to get all dusty with flour.
Interviewer: Is there anything else you would like to say about Capelas, the village?
João Viveiros: What’s there to say about Capelas! It is a village, like any other!