I first encountered Pão de Queijo was when I living in Argentina several years back. I had enrolled in a Spanish refresher course at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and managed to grab one of the last open spots on the summer class, which was otherwise fully occupied by Brazilian students. They taught me many things that January, including how to properly appreciate their staple cheese bread snack. When they ran out of energy to make it from scratch themselves, we all resorted to the Argentine equivalent – Chipa.
A bread made from a base of yuca or cassava flour and cheese, this totally gluten free snack was amazingly still an option for me after finding out I was allergic. With a growing Brazilian population, London is host to several cafes that import Pão de Queijo but the homemade kind is still hard to find. So, I was nothing if not delighted when I heard a new local company was on the scene – Dona Rita.
Started in 2016 by São Paulo native Rita, her son Pedro and his Spanish girlfriend Clara, Dona Rita has big dreams to make Pão de Queijo a London staple, and, why not, given its versatility as a snack, an accompaniment and even a meal itself, smothered in different toppings and stuffed with meats, cheeses and vegetables.
My wonderful photographer Ilmi and I ventured to meet the team one Saturday at their Druid Street Market base, where they opened for business this year. The brightly hand painted blue stall stood out from afar on a dreary Saturday morning in Bermondsey, as did the cheery disposition of Rita and her family. Rita, who came to the UK in 2002, told us how she had missed Pão de Queijo so much that she quickly started working to perfect her own recipe, preparing the bread multiple times per week.
However, it was Pedro’s girlfriend Clara – a coeliac – who encouraged Rita to turn her baking into a business. “One morning Pedro gave me some for breakfast. I couldn’t believe it was gluten free and it’s safe to say I’m now obsessed with it,” Clara explained.
While Rita prepped us a generous tray of fresh Pão, Pedro explained how the team got started, first showcasing Rita’s bread on social media, before taking it to Druid Street Market in south London. “This market has been a great starting point for us and we have met a lot of great people – both alltime Pão de Queijo fans and new taste testers,” Pedro said. The brand, which right now is focused on the bread itself but in the future could expand to other cassava-based snacks, “needs to be seen as different, while staying true to Brazilian heritage,” Clara said. But this is not your average Brazilian business, with the bright colours of the Brazilian flag nowhere to be seen. “We want to attract Brazilians, Londoners and everyone else in between,” Pedro added.
“My dream is to see our Pão de Queijo in stores so everyone can have access to it,” Rita said, while recommending we try her homemade Pao smothered in Requeijão – Brazil’s answer to cream cheese. The team also have a fresh supply of different seasonal jams to try on top of the bread. “It’s even amazing with nutella,” Rita added. The bread was one of the best I’ve had, wonderfully soft on the inside and crisp on the outside. It’s safe to say that Rita has accomplished the perfect texture, which came across immediately upon pulling the bread apart and into two pieces, leaving it ready to cover in a delicious topping.
Versatile yet focused, Dona Rita is definitely a business to watch. The team have a number of ideas to develop the traditional Pão, including introducing new flavours and colours to the range via all natural ingredients such as beetroot, spinach, carrot and even aspirations to introduce a vegan option. The team currently sell fresh Pão as well as frozen bags of 15 balls to take home and cook later. I cannot urge you all enough to go meet Rita, Pedro and Clara in May when they will be at Old Street Station showcasing just how good this Brazilian staple is.
Dona Rita currently has a pop-up at Old Street Station until May 21!
Photo Credits: Ilmi Perez-Stubbs