|Introduction to Chickpea-Leavened Bread and Rusks|
|An Excerpt From Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Grains and Greens|
Victoria Athanassiady never lies. She tells me as much the moment we meet. "I say what I think and think what I say," she says. "If I tell you how to make a dish, you can rely on my words."
I've come to her to learn the secrets of one of the most difficult, demanding breads of the entire Mediterranean, a fermented ground chickpea leavened bread that has become my nemesis. After numerous failures I have been tempted to give it up, but this bread is so delicious, golden, and aromatic, I am determined to finally get it right.
The bread is made from a fermented dough of ground chick- peas flavored with aromatics. (Note: The well-known chickpea flour-based mixtures, such as those used in Indian fried puris, Ligurian farinatas, or Provencal soccas are different, being batters in which there is little or no chick-pea fermentation.) And, interestingly, once made it's generally not eaten in bread form, but turned into rusks. In a way it's the Cretan, Cypriot, and Turkish answer to the German-Mennonite Zweiback, but with a mouth-watering flavor all its own.
Victoria Athanassiady is middle-aged. She wears glasses, has gray hair,and comes from the town of Chania on the island of Crete. She strikes me as the kind of person who is good at whatever she undertakes. The Greek word for such a woman is nicokeera.
"When I was young and went to England to work as an au pair," she tells me, "the family I worked for asked me if I didn't think life was better in England than in Greece. I told them no, that I loved our traditions and ancient ways, and that, frankly, I thought life was better in Crete. From that moment they trusted me. Which was why, I think, Madame often asked my opinion when she brought home a new dress or lipstick. She knew I wouldn't humor her."
To meet Victoria and discuss the making of this bread is a little like going to ancient Delphi to consult the oracle. Her utterances are striking, yet there is always a deeper level. It's only when I think over what she's told me, that I understand her full range of meaning.
One of Victoria's first lessons is that the common name of the bread, eftazimo ("to knead seven times"), is misleading. She herself thinks of the bread as autizimo, which means self-rising.
"It does not require seven kneadings," she says. Good news! I think.
I spend the day watching her make the dough, writing down everything she does. My aim is to figure out a way to reproduce the bread at home while retaining its original character. Commercial packaged Cretan rusks just don't come close.
Back in San Francisco, in the weeks following my visit, I try and fail to duplicate Victoria's results, I ponder everything she taught me, and read and re-read her letters of encouragement. In an exchange of faxes, she writes: "I agree, it is not an easy bread to make. It requires much practice."
In this regard I take some comfort from a line from Diana Farr Louis' and June Marinos's Ionian cookbook, Prospero's Kitchen, in which the authors cite remarks written in 1904 by Archduke Ludwig Salvator to the effect that one should keep a black-handled knife, a red blanket and a holy book by one's side for this bread to succeed.
It turns out that there's a fascinating aura of superstition surrounding this bread. According to Victoria, nuns in Greece never make it. "They call it 'devil's bread'," she tells me. "The fermentation signifies boiling in anger. They won't even eat it!"
If making this bread is somehow considered demonic, that may explain the many superstitions. Village women, I learn, won't tell anyone when they're going to bake it for fear it will fail due to bad spirits and the "Evil Eye." For this same reason they often make it in the middle of the night so no one will smell it baking. Victoria tells me that her own mother, when making autizimo, would throw old leather shoelaces on the fire to make everything smell bad so no one would know what she was doing. "If it smells good, people pass by and say, 'Ah, they're making eftazimo in there.' This is considered very bad luck. No one outside the family must know. Here in Crete, you understand, the `Evil Eye' is a serious matter!"
Actually, this bread is not just made in Crete. I have a little church cookbook put out by a group of Albanian Greeks who make it enriched with eggs to be served on feast days with brined cheese and olives. In the Macedonian town of Florina on the old Yugoslav border, and on the Ionian island of Zakinthos in the Adriatic, this same bread is flavored with hot peppers. In south-eastern Turkey it's turned into rusks to be eaten during the fasting month of Ramadan along with a cup of tea.
A few years ago I spent an afternoon with the brothers Kol in their bakery, the oldest in the Turkish town of Gaziantep. They showed me how to ferment crushed chickpeas in order to make the starter for the rusk that they called kaak. They told me that they made their rusks each Ramadan without any problems.
"It is not the `Evil Eye' that will give you trouble," the older Kol brother told me. "Rather it's that at every step there's a crossroad, so you need to know your way. For example, a draft or a chill at the wrong time can kill the rise. On the other hand you can store the prepared dough in the refrigerator then return it to room temperature to bake. Also, we only partially bake the bread, so that we can slice it into strips to dry out on our stone floor in the oven fired by hardwood coals. That's our special secret."
The elder Kol apologized for not having any dough around for me to examine, but he did have some starter. He brought out a narrow jar from the warm back portion of his oven, and showed me a yellowish frothy liquid, shook it for a moment then held it to my ear, so I could hear it fizzing.
"What you're hearing is fermentation," he explained. "It takes a long time to ferment and you need to pay close attention to the temperature and the flour. Too bad you weren't here last week when I went through the whole process for a Japanese television crew."
Alas, indeed! This was why I was so glad to be sitting with Victoria, watching her punch the dough and "knuckle in" the water that had been scented with a dozen bay leaves. She bent over a wooden trough as high as her knees so her entire body was involved in the kneading. I watched as she used her fists to punch in tablespoons of bay leaf scented brew.
"Always keep the dough moist," she instructed me amid the squishy sounds of her kneading. "Add the liquid as necessary. If the dough starts getting hard, dip your hands into the liquid, then knead like this," she said, demonstrating the "knuckling in" motion. "If the dough gets too loose, add a little bit of barley flour."
It took her more than half an hour to knead the dough, after which she allowed it to relax. She shaped it, allowed it to relax again, then made some decorative lines on top and finally put it in a fairly hot oven to bake. After a while it rose more than two inches. What came out was a butter-colored muffin-like bread with an incredible aroma and a special indescribable taste. As I munched on a piece in Victoria's kitchen, I knew that this was a bread I would have to master.
I took home my notes and began the marathon labor of perfecting a recipe. True to the brothers' pronouncements there was an obstacle at every turn.
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