story by Lauri Sagle
photo by Peter French
The robust authenticity of the Kona Historical Society’s Portuguese oven, or forno, becomes apparent upon approach. Part of a compound of buildings, the dome-shaped stone oven rises out of a green, hilly terrain where, just hours earlier, cattle had tromped. Meant to recreate life in late nineteenth century Hawai‘i, the oven and buildings are a still-evolving project, a “living history museum” known as the Kona Heritage Ranch and Store, featuring both replicas and genuine artifacts of the time.
“We wanted to show people what life was like and how people lived,” says Noni Kuhns, who serves as director of sales for the society. “Local folks want it preserved because the island is changing so rapidly, and visitors want more than just beach and sand—they want to know what it was like back then.”
The forno is integral to this project, as it was the center of warmth, food and, to a degree, livelihood for the Portuguese, who began immigrating to Hawai‘i in the 1870s. Kuhns herself is descended from an early generation of Portuguese arrivals and this forno has a personal connection: It is her family’s sweet bread recipe that is used every Thursday afternoon during the oven’s once-a-week baking session, with professional baker Ramona Amogus overseeing the process. The oven is fired up at 5:30 a.m.; an hour and a half later, the bread dough—all ninety-four pounds of it—is ready to rise; by 11:30 the dough has been shaped into its distinct Portuguese bread pillows and volunteers are standing by, wielding paint brushes dripping with egg glaze. The heat of the oven, which reaches 1,000 degrees at its peak, dissipates throughout the day, and Amogus must be both vigilant and cautious. “The baking time is fast,” she says. “Sometimes, too fast. When you smell it, you have about five more minutes to go.”
And once you taste it, you’ll never go back to store-bought varieties: Soft and light, the loaves have a hint of egg flavor and a delicate imprint of the sugar that makes it, after all, a “sweet bread.” Baking demonstrations and sales take place every Thursday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Kona Historical Society