If there is one shop in Greece that will never go out of business, even in dire financial times, it is the local bakery.
Bread has held a prominent place in our diet from ancient times through to the modern day, and has often been given a cultural context through traditional feasts and religious customs.
Up until the fifth century BC, bread was made of barley and spelt – also known as dinkel wheat – and would be cooked on charcoal.
The cultivation of common wheat came to Greece after regular trade relations were established with Egypt.
According to historian Herodotus, Egyptians kneaded bread using their feet, while dreaming of white bread was considered a good omen.
During the Thesmoforia festival, the biggest celebration in honour of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, women would offer bread to please the deity.
The transition from homemade production to the establishment of the first bakeries took place around the second century AD, while written records suggest that ancient Greeks used to make more than 70 different kinds of bread.
An interesting story connects the origin of the word paximathia (rusks) to Paxamus, a man who lived in Viotia during the first century AD. Paxamos is said to have been the first to think of a method of preserving bread for longer by baking it twice until it became completely dry. Paximathia form the basis of the beloved Cretan salad dakos.
Thanks to its cheap and basic ingredients, there was never a period where its consumption was out of fashion. Even during frugal times, people knew they could rely on bread, olives and vegetables to get through the day.
Today, the primitive mix of flour and water has given way to a whole new set of recipes, with different grains used or fillings added.
From plain white horiatiko (country) bread to wholemeal or eleopsomo (bread with olives), you can find plenty of different kinds on display in a typical bakery all year round.
There are also types of bread for special occasions, such as lagana, the Greek flatbread that is only eaten once a year on Clean Monday (Kathara deftera) the day which marks the beginning of the 40 day fasting before Easter.
Despite the prevalence of mass production and contemporary methods of baking, you can still track down small bakeries, especially in villages, where the owners use wood-burning stoves and make bread the old-fashioned, traditional way their grandparents taught them.
Regardless of whether your heart belongs to the all-time classic horiatiko or a more sophisticated version appeals to your tastebuds, one thing is certain – you know you are a Greek when you cannot enjoy your meal without a slice of bread on the table.
All you ‘knead’ to know about baking horiatiko (crusty country bread) the Greek way is in this recipe.
Do not be put off by the time you have to invest; the penetrating aroma of freshly-baked bread in the house will compensate your effort.
30g of fresh yeast or 2 tablespoons of dry yeast
1/2 cup of lukewarm water
1/2 cup of flour (extra, the same type as used for the bread)
8 cups of bread flour (whole wheat, barley, white, corn, or other)
1 tablespoon of salt
2 1/2 cups of lukewarm water
2 tablespoons of milk
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of honey
1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in lukewarm water. Slowly add the 1/2 cup of flour and mix until all lumps of flour have dissolved, to form a thick liquid. Allow to rise about 15-20 minutes.
2. Sift the remaining flour with the salt, put in a large mixing bowl, and make a well in the centre. Add oil, honey, milk, yeast mixture, and 2 cups of the water in the well. Pulling in the flour slowly, mix with your hands until it’s a cohesive mass. (If more water is needed, add in small amounts from the remaining 1/2 cup.) Turn out onto a floured surface and continue kneading until the dough is nice and smooth and no longer sticks to the hands.
3. Place the dough in a lightly-oiled mixing bowl and roll until all sides of the dough are lightly oiled. Cover the bowl with 3 dishtowels: one dry, one dampened with warm water and the other dry. Place in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
4. Punch down and knead for 5-6 minutes on a floured surface. Divide the dough into the number of loaves you want to make (this works well in 3-4 loaves), and form into round or oblong or baguette shaped loaves. Place on ungreased cookie sheets and cover with 3 clean dishtowels (the middle one damp). In a warm place, allow the loaves to rise for 1 hour.
5. Preheat oven to 220°C.
6. For a thicker crust, score the tops of the loaves in three or four places.
7. Otherwise, bake as is on the rack just below the middle of the oven for 30-35 minutes until browned. When tapped on the bottom, bread will sound hollow.
8. When the loaves are done, remove from oven and cool on racks.
* Sources: gatherforbread.com, Hellenic federation of bakers, loulismuseum.gr, clementinecuisine.net, palo.gr, greekfood.about.com, food.com, thegreekglutton.com