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21 MARCH 2016

Greek Bread

"The four cornerstones of this blessed land: bread, wine, fire, woman".
Nikos Kazantzakis
 
Bread is kneaded into the history and survival of man. Its importance in everyday life is so great that it is often referred to as "the essence of life".
 
In Greece bread had already acquired an almost sacred status from early antiquity. Hesiod discusses bread and Plato mentions that wheat cultivation was used as a means to distinguish between civilized and primitive communities. Greeks brought the art of bread baking forward, adding milk, honey or spices to create different varieties. This was especially true when the bread was to be offered to the goddess of harvest, Demeter, as a blessing. Many trade routes were either established or consolidated because of the availability of bread.  In fact, Egypt was the great granary that provided the bread for Alexander's army, fueling his conquests.
 
The sacred status of bread was consolidated by Christ, placing it in the center of the new religion of Christianity, as a blessed symbol of the Lord's sacrifice. Pater Noster, the prayer uttered by Christ Himself, makes a special reference to daily bread, marking it forever a vital pillar not only as food for the body but also as spiritual sustenance.
 
The spiritual qualities of bread making and consuming live through the ages and survive even today. Housewives all over Greece still knead the "prosforo", a type of bread to be used in Mass for Communion, following the priests' instructions and reenacting age old traditions with their mothers' reverence. Some of this bread will be used in Communion; the rest is distributed to the whole congregation, so that they may all receive the blessing of the Holy Bread, praying for strength in their daily life. Bread is deeply associated both with life and death in Greece. Some people still knead traditional coil-shaped bread for weddings and decorate the loaves with folk patterns, such as birds and flowers, made out of dough.  In Rethymno, Crete and Mani, Peloponnese, the wedding bread decoration is considered folk art. On the other hand, bread is ever present in ceremonies and traditions related to death and burial. It is customary to share pieces of bread called "makaria" during the funeral procession and small buns of bread later at the memorial services. The bread and buns are offerings and calls for prayer on the behalf of the deceased so that he or she may rest in peace.

Nowadays, most people buy their daily bread ready made from bakeries, yet in the near past most housewives would personally prepare, knead and bake their own bread. Each family would take their wheat to the mill where the miller ground it down to flour. This flour then had to be sifted to remove any middlings. The lady of the house would knead the dough using only yeast, flour and salt. The dough was then put in bowls and left to rise in a warm place until it was baked in traditional stone ovens. The procedure took place only once or twice a week as it was not only time consuming but also required a great amount of wood or coal to heat the oven. The days on which the kneading took place acquired an almost celebratory occasion. More often than not, the lady of the house would bake other delicacies such as biscuits with honey and nuts alongside the bread to treat the children of the family. Some bakeries and farms still knead bread in the traditional way.  In our trilogy of trips, we will have the opportunity to visit some of these and get firsthand experience hand kneading and baking bread.

Today in Greece there is an ongoing effort to re-discover the value of traditional, whole grain bread. People return to the tastes so highly prized by their ancestors, and bread varieties, such as dinkel (also known as "olira" or "zea" to Homer and Hesiod which was a grain cultivated by ancient Greeks but was discarded in the 20th century as fodder) are gradually gaining loyal followers.

 

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