THE HUMBLE LOAF
Personal notes about Cypriot Bread
By Lois Cemal…
I was recently made aware of the existence of a kitchen gadget that mixes, kneads, raises and bakes a loaf of bread all on its own by just pouring in the essential ingredients and plugging it in. I can empathize with the inventor. What can be nicer than a warm slice of bread to spread with butter and honey? My personal best creation as a teenager was a Swedish tea ring, made with a milk-and-butter dough filled with brown sugar, cinnamon, walnuts and raisins. Little did I know that years later I would be baking 15 large loaves of bread at a time in a beehive-shaped, brush-fired village oven for my family’s fortnightly supply!
I had no idea anyone could consume as much bread as Cypriots. They don’t feel they’ve eaten unless several thick chunks of bread have mopped up the all the juices. The experience of some Cypriot friends demonstrates this when on a visit to a London restaurant they asked for bread with their meal. The waitress brought 2 buttered triangles of sliced bread, which they devoured in a mouthful, so they asked for more, this time unbuttered please. The fourth time they asked for a repeat she brought them the whole loaf, which they promptly devoured to the last crumb.
In Cyprus bread has always been an important commodity. My mother-in-law recounted how, during the depression years, she used to collect firewood all day and deliver it to the nearby town 7 miles away by donkey so she could buy a single round loaf. Wheat flour was scarce in those days. People made bread from barley, lentil or even carob flour to keep body and soul together. When we ourselves first arrived in Cyprus everyone was constantly telling my children not to drop bread on the ground while they were eating or “God will burn you” they recited. When you calculate the effort needed in the not-so-distant past to plough the land with oxen, sow by hand, reap with a sickle and grind with a stone mill just to get the flour, not to mention gathering wood for the oven, kneading and baking, one can see why the Cypriots have a reverential respect for bread. If bread is to be discarded, it is placed gently on the side of the road where it won’t get trodden on and could be found by an animal or bird. My husband warned me that even placing a loaf upside down on the table was disrespectful and I must never throw it as in anger (which I think I did once in the past for some reason and is why he told me!) Some people I know don’t even let breadcrumbs fall down the kitchen sink, as they don’t want them to go into the septic tank.
Sliced bread as sold in the West doesn’t hold a candle to the sturdy round loaves found in the village larders. Baking starts by increasing the yeast, which is a ball of dough saved from the previous baking day. Flour, bought by the sack, is sifted into a large tekne, a wooden trough made from a hollowed out section of tree trunk. Salt, warm water and the prepared sour-dough yeast are mixed in by hand and kneaded so it becomes smooth and shiny. The kneader, dipping hands into warm water, rocks her knuckled fists into the dough, using her body weight as she bends over the trough, pummelling the dough. It is tiring work especially when the demands of a large household mean that up to 20 kilos of flour can be used at one time.
A user of activated dry yeast myself I had no experience with village yeast and asked my mother-in-law how it could be made from scratch. “You mix flour and water to make a ball of dough the size of a grapefruit” she starts. “Then you ask a friend three times ‘What is this?’ and she answers three times ‘It is yeast and it is sweet’. Of course, neither woman should be menstruating, or it won’t work. After about 3 days the dough will start to rise and can be increased slowly and made ready for baking”. Menstruating women also cannot save yeast, meaning neighbours are always asking each other to save them some maya on baking day.
When the dough has rested awhile, kilo-sized balls of it are kneaded, shaped and placed in the shallow cloth-covered depressions of a penevet. This long wooden plank traditionally has about 10 hollows and is where the bread is proved, or allowed to rise. The cloth allows for ease of removal. The resting breads are covered with, I feel, an unnecessary pile of blankets and quilts as if it was Antarctica and it is left to double in bulk, about 2-3 hours. (I always found a draft-free room and a sheet is sufficient for bread to prove.)
The traditional village oven is round and domed like an igloo, built on a base that is waist high. It is made of clay bricks, or stone, and is plastered with straw-mixed mud to a smooth finish inside and out. The door to the oven shouldn’t face the house, superstition says, as it is bad luck. A frequently used oven needs about an hour of burning to get hot enough. Sometimes if it’s been raining the oven needs to be lit the day before to dry it out. There is a smoke outlet, which is closed with a flat stone during baking. Dried olive and şinya (tenebrinth)branches are best to use because of their oil content and kerosene should never be thrown on to start things burning as the smell stays in the bread. Rubbing the floor with a long stick stirs up the insulating ashes and ensures equal heating of the base. When the inside of the oven is white hot, the coals are pushed to one side and the floor is swept clean. Artichoke leaves tied on a long pole or a mop made of recycled cotton clothes or socks, dampened, work equally well to sweep the floor clean. Ashes and bits of charcoal stuck in the bread are a sign of an untidy and lazy cook.
A friend is always helpful in putting the bread in the oven. The dough is flipped out of each depression by pulling on the cloth and is deposited on the round, long handled shovel. The breads are then placed snugly around the inside wall and in front of the coals. Although cooking time is about an hour, the bread has to be checked frequently, especially in the first 10 minutes. If too hot and the bread is browning too quickly, opening the smoke hole on top or covering the coals with clay tiles helps to regulate the temperature. Alternatively, if the bread isn’t browning at all, stirring up the coals makes them burn brighter and the oven get hotter. When the cook is satisfied that all is under control it is time to rest with a yorgunluk kahvesi, a well-earned cup of coffee.
With all the smoke billowing out of one’s back yard and the smell of hot bread wafting out onto the street, it’s hard to hide the fact that you’re baking. Sharing bread is an important part of the Cypriot culture and if one visits a house on baking day they will be offered a warm crusty loaf to tear a chunk off. To refuse is to be ill mannered as the giver is gaining sevap, meaning they gain reward in the after-life. Villagers believe that what food and water you share in this life you will receive in heaven. So don’t refuse, indulge and enjoy the staple food of these hard-working honest people.
Lois Cemal, a Canadian, has been married to her Turkish Cypriot husband for 37 years and they have 3 children. For the last 27 years she has raised her family in a village in the Karpaz, the panhandle of Cyprus, keeping goats and chickens, baking bread and making cheese and learning much about Cypriot traditions and culture.
To read more visit www.ecotourismcyprus.com