Gleba might be of the most phenomenal success stories to sweep Lisbon’s food scene in years, but the odds were stacked against this bakery - tucked into a storefront in the Alcântara neighborhood - ever actually seeing the light of day. The brainchild of chef and entrepreneur Diogo Amorim, the bakery applies the principles of the Slow Food movement – the emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients – to bread. Gleba serves up dense, crusty spheres of sourdough bread made exclusively from Portuguese-grown cereals – which, in a country where 90 percent of the flour is made from imported grains - has proven nothing short of revolutionary.
The approach has won Gleba legions of devoted fans, putting the bread on the tables at some of the city’s finest restaurants and attracting lines of customers that often snake down the block, more like the queues for tickets to the hottest show than anything you’ve ever seen outside a bakery. But despite its phenomenal popularity, Gleba is a highly unlikely success story. First, there’s the issue of Amorim’s age. Today age 23, he was just 21 years old when he opened Gleba, with money he’d saved while working in the kitchens of several top restaurants across Europe, supplemented by loans from his parents and grandparents. “If I had had to try to get a loan from a bank, it would have been tough,” Amorim, still baby-faced despite his beard, acknowledged with a laugh.
But an even bigger stumbling block was the very premise of the bakery itself: That the flour would be freshly milled from domestically sourced the cereals. Bread has long been one of the pillars of the Portuguese diet, but because soils in the county are not ideal for wheat cultivation, breads here traditionally tended to be made from corn flour. But under the nearly 50-year-long dictatorship, bread became politicized: In a nominal bid to shore up Portugal’s self-reliance, the Estado Novo required farmers to plant wheat, while at the same time freezing the price of bread. The policies took a toll on the traditional corn-based broas and also resulted in lighter, airier breads, as bakers adapted recipes in a bid to slash costs.
Portugal’s entry into the European Union brought further changes, ushering in a wave of mechanization and standardization in Portugal’s bakeries, as well as an increased reliance on additives and imported cereals. These days, even the quintessentially Portuguese pão de Mafra is made from grains grown in Ukraine, Poland and other places countries with more robust wheat industries. “The hardest part was to find farmers who still grow traditional varieties of the cereals we use -wheat, rye and corn – and don’t use imported seed,” said Amorim, adding he began his search for suppliers some two years before Gleba actually opened. He also scored a vintage mill, a hulking piece of equipment that belonged to a defunct flour mill and had to be transported by crane.
A native of the northern town of Santa Maria da Feira, Amorim showed a precocious interest in food and cooking that would blossom in his teenage years into a full-on obsession. He would often watch his mom, a chemistry professor and accomplished cook, at work in the kitchen, and as the end of high school rolled around, it was clear that he’d opt for cooking school. A stint at the Culinary Arts Academy in Lucerne, Switzerland, helped him score internships at the three-star London restaurant,The Fat Duck, and subsequently a job at Villa Joly, another Michelin-starred restaurant, in the Algarve. Throughout those experiences, Amorim says he was thinking about bread. “Already in London, in my tiny apartment, I was baking bread and reading all about bread,” he said. “There used to be this sort of snobby idea that bread was something of a lesser food. But we’re showing that’s not at all the case.”