Bread of Beirut

18 Aug

Photo by Julien Harneis

From Granta: “Bread of Beirut” by Annia Ciezadlo

Snag to all you carbophobes…

“The practice of sharing an oven goes back to the ancients, when Babylonian temples fed their subjects on the leftovers from the feasts of the gods. But the urban public oven came into its own in the medieval Mediterranean.  In cities all around the Middle Sea, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Armenians alike brought bread and other foods to the oven at the pandocheion, a Greek word for inn that means ‘accepting all comers’. For a small fee, the public baker would cook your food, saving scarce heat and fuel for all to share – a kind of culinary carpool. Private ovens encouraged segregation; public ovens led to mixing, cross-pollination, and negotiation – in a word, relationships. And probably, I imagine, a fair amount of food and recipe sharing across religious and ethnic lines.”

Women taking cloth-covered trays of food to the fourno in the morning and coming back with them just before lunchtime were a regular neighborhood sight in Greece till the eighties even, and I can only imagine all over the Mediteranean (Iran?), especially on Sundays or feast days, when a casserole or tepsi-based dish was more expected than a “pot” dish which was easier to make at home: pastitsio, mousaka, roast lamb (with rice in the still post-Ottoman north, or potatoes in the Bavarian south), borek (again, in the still civilized north; no one in southern Greece can roll out decent yufka to save their lives), even tomato or eggplant or pepper dolma, which Greeks tend to bake rather than simmer like Turks do, with lots of extra filling spread around the pan, so the edges of the rice — the zaire, they used to call it in Epiros, which means grain or grain stock in Turkish (and sounds of Farsi origin to me) — got nice and crispy.

What Ciezadlo doesn’t point out is that the neighborhoud fournoi also saved you from so much heat in the summer in those countries, which built up in even the coolest stone and tiled houses.  And that anything cooked at the fourno just tasted incomparably better than anything made in a home oven, especially those lame electric ovens and ranges — digital cooking — used in much of Europe and the world today.

What she couldn’t have known is that by tradition almost all firincilar in the Ottoman Balkans, Constantinople and even much of Anatolia were Epirotes.  My mother’s family ran a fourno in Bucharest for three generations, the men going back and forth to Roumania from their village in shifts to manage the place.  Even today in Athens, people will often single out an Epirote baker to get their bread from.

I highly suggest that you read Ciezadlo’s article only if you have a source of good Lebanese food in easy proximity because, otherwise, it will leave you in pain.

P.S. fournos, forno, furn, firin, fir, horno — all come from the Latin furnus, so don’t get excited; it’s not a Greek word.



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