The great charm of bread through history, symbols and flavours. We can “feel” a culture through the bread it produces: while you taste local bread, close your eyes and listen to the story it tells you.
I have always felt a great attraction to bread, both in terms of its taste and its symbolic value. Some of the most intense moments of my journeys were related to bread!
Bread through history, symbols and flavours: the first traces are in a 14,000 year-old archeological site
Bread is part of the history of humanity. There are traces of it in the story of every continent, with different cereals. Recent Danish and English archaeological excavations discovered some remains in Shubayqa, north-east Jordan. It was a place where shepherds met – agriculture was going to become stable 4 millennia later.
The primordial grains of wheat were ground with stones, then mixed with water and baked perhaps on other hot stones or under ashes. So the first bread known to us was pita bread.
The Egyptians, Sumerians, Hittites, Jews and Romans made extensive use of bread as a staple food. It seems that yeast was introduced by the Egyptians, who listed 15 types of yeast to take to the grave. The Greeks gave great importance to the baker and bread was baked under the protection of the goddess Demeter. In Ancient Rome there were 400 public bread ovens and. Ancient civilisations in Central America also used bread, with quinoa or corn, in Asia a type of bread with rice flour.
Bread and the sacred
Through history, symbols and flavours, bread plays a very important role in relation to the sacred. Rituals linked to bread can be found in the history of ancient Egypt, as well as in Greece.
In Judaism, bread plays a fundamental role: in celebrations from the very beginning, it is presented as a symbol of well-being and peace, together with wine, the symbol of joy. Before the main meal, there is a special blessing of the bread, which must be at least 35 grams. Melchisedech offers bread to Abraham, Elijah is fed with flatbread by the angel in the night, the unleavened bread of the flight from Egypt, and so on throughout the Old Testament. In fact, in the book of Genesis alone, the word “bread” appears 18 times. On Shabbat dinner, soft bread called Challah is served.
For Christianity, bread plays a central role: the Eucharist, the broken bread that becomes the body of Christ, the most sacred and mysterious heart of religion. The multiplication of the bread and the fish, the blessing of bread at the Last Supper, the harvesting of the ears of corn, right up to the “give us this day our daily bread”. In many celebrations and cults, bread is a central point, as in processions in Sardinia or Christmas celebrations in Eastern Europe.
In the Qur’an, bread is a gift from Allah for which thanks must be given.
Breaking the bread, the value of sharing
Bread recalls sharing. Breaking bread and sharing it has a cross-cultural dimension. Bread is usually large, precisely because it is to be shared.
In Judaism you don’t cut bread with a knife, because that would evoke violence, but you break it. And on Friday evenings it is the head of the family who dips it in salt and brings it to each guest.
In the villages of Ethiopia, when one is invited to eat in a tukul, the head of the family takes a piece of tieff bread, the engira, dips it in the sauce and feeds it everyone else. In some places in India, birthday girls are ‘fed’ with a piece of sweet bread.
Bread recalls peace. Gandhi speaks of it as a source of peace. And the Islamic mystic Rumi speaks of it in several poems, ‘made in the burning oven bread for the world’.
Bread through history, symbols and flavours: where have I tasted unforgettable bread
For me, travelling means to enter a land, to walk in the furrows of its history, to taste a morsel of the bread of its toil, to share the vibration of its being yeast.
In Kosovo, I ate rectangular bread with oil, an immersion of truth. In Ethiopia, I slowly got used to engera. During my last journey to India, I loved fried bread. When I was the Temple of the Tiger in Japan I was carried away by the softness of the very white bread.
In Jerusalem I waited for the opening of the oven at dawn and I broke the pita among bells, muezzins and songs in the most ancient streets. Every day in Damascus, my father and I would go out at dawn to enjoy the smell of zatar bread. In Apulia, I loved bruschetta with durum wheat bread. In Germany, I devoured rye bread. When we are in France, Alberto and I live on baguettes.
Two recipes for a different kind of bread
Pan-fried bread, fast cooking!
Mix 400g white flour, 200ml milk, 4 tablespoons of Kefir (or sugar-free sugar), 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of yeast. Leave the mixture to rest for two hours, covering with cling film.
Turn it out onto the pastry board with a little flour and make 6 loaves, then press them gently.
Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan. When it’s hot, put in 3 loaves and cover with a good lid (I use glass ones). Cook for 4 minutes on each side. A tasty bread, perfect for sliced meats and cheeses.
An easy, homemade pita bread.
Mix 500 g of flour (or 300 g flour and 200 g semolina), 300 ml water, 12 g yeast, 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of honey. Let it rise for at least 2 hours – 4 is ideal, although I prefer to make it the day before!
Make small balls – the size of a clementine. Roll them out with a rolling pin into circles. Heat the non-stick pan well. Cook them for 2 or 3 minutes on each side, turning continuously. Put a little zatar (or oregano and thyme) with salt and olive oil on the first freshly cooked side.