The Portuguese Answer to English Muffins
The English muffin faces a fierce competitor in the South Coast region of Massachusetts and nearby towns in Rhode Island. Those in the know are swapping out that more familiar (and crumblier) bread product for the far superior bolo levedo. Often called just a “bolo” for short, they look like overgrown English muffins at first glance but the flavor and texture is totally different. They’re pleasantly crusty with a hint of sweetness that makes them an even better accompaniment to morning coffee when sliced in half, toasted, and slathered with butter.
Bolos aren’t just reserved for the home kitchen, either. Al Mac’s Diner in Fall River, Massachusetts and Tia Maria’s European Cafe in nearby New Bedford will both serve your eggs, bacon, and cheese sandwiched in a bolo. Just across the border in Newport, Rhode Island, Empire Tea & Coffee favors breakfast sandwiches on bolos for practical reasons—English muffins can’t be toasted thoroughly in a short enough time to meet their service requirements.
“Chewy English muffins are absolutely horrible.” says Empire Tea & Coffee co-owner CJ Barone. So, after exploring several bread alternatives, he happily settled on the bolo. “[They] were perfect, naturally delicious and fairly sweet,” he explains. “The texture of the bread and the added sweetness allowed them to caramelize in the toaster perfectly.” Right down the street from the local coffee chain’s Broadway location, popular breakfast spot Corner Cafe makes a “Lisbon Express” with two scrambled eggs, Portuguese chouriço sausage, sauteed white onions, and cheddar, all on a bolo of course.
Despite the name of that particular sandwich, the roots of Portuguese food in New England don’t lie in Portugal’s capital city. Immigrants from islands like Cape Verde, Madeira, and the Azores off the coast of Portugal arrived in the Northeast in the 19th century to work in the whaling industry. Soon after, they emigrated in droves to the South Coast region of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to find jobs in textile mills. Bolos come specifically from the village of Furnas on São Miguel, the biggest and most populous island of the Azores, where they were traditionally eaten in the summertime alongside a local dessert wine.
When Tiberio and Leonor Lopes emigrated to the United States from Sao Miguel in 1967, they couldn’t find bolos levedos anywhere. Back in the Azores, Leonor’s mother Beatriz Caetano had actually made them for a living. The Lopes family started using her recipe to make the first bolos ever sold in the United States. Central Bakery was started in the garage of their house in Swansea, Massachusetts in 1975. Today the family-owned company occupies an 8,00 square foot facility in Tiverton, Rhode Island and distributes their sole product to restaurants and grocery stores around the country.
According to Paul Lopes (a son of the founders and current co-owner), Central Bakery first coined the term “Portuguese muffin” to market their bolos levedos to unfamiliar customers. But as they increased in popularity and more bolo bakeries came on the scene, they began to call them “3 Meal Muffins” to distinguish themselves. Despite the similarities in name and looks to the English muffin, Lopes insists the similarities end there. “The taste and texture is completely different,” he says. “We use eggs, milk, and sugar, which gives it a more cake-like texture.”
Today Central Bakery has more competition as other local companies attempt to meet the demand for bolos created by the region’s grocery stores and restaurants. But Central Bakery is also finding interest outside of New England, distributing to businesses in New York, Florida, and even California. Tribeca Grill uses bolos as a hamburger bun and also serves them at their related concessions stand in Madison Square Garden, The Daily Burger. In fact, Lopes says that’s the most popular use for their product right now. Soon maybe the bolo levedo won’t be just the Portuguese answer to the English muffin, but the answer to the hamburger bun as well.