The first time I went there I was just amazed and so delighted. Any description did not do justice to the reality of such a useful, practical place, such an eco-friendly solution to one of local life’s most important problems; how to bake the bread that comprises, by a huge percentage, the majority of the daily intake of calories and nutrition for the men, women and children of the village. I since have learned that with slightly different variations, these community ovens are commonplace to most villages in the East, at least in the area with which I am familiar.
The flour tradition
The second time I was in the village, I was feeling very useless one afternoon, watching my mother-in-law preparing flour for baking. I have never been a skilled bread baker, much less imagined the variety of leavened and unleavened loaves the women create in the village. In fact, not just bread but several other foodstuffs are made from flour. Our village used to grow all its own wheat, but that is a story for a different time. The flour tradition lives on, though, and soups as well as desserts are made from flour, variously boiled, sautéed, roasted, mixed with butter, steamed with milk and mixed with eggs. Flour rubbed in butter is used like the cheese in our city börek, layered with paper-thin unleavened dough, which is then cooked on a flat surface. Leavened dough is made into pide, which takes as many forms as imagination can give it; flat pide, rolled pide, pide with cheese, pide with eggs, pide rolled like a snake and coiled or braided, with or without seeds or glaze. Of course, each of these treatments has its own name, but the basic bread is what my mother-in-law calls pide.
Anne (mother) was whipping up some pide that afternoon, and my husband and I were marveling because she was so skilled and nonchalant about it, when all of a sudden we recognized pide’s similarity to pizza dough and we had a brainstorm. We would make our folks pizza for dinner and cook it in the village bakery! We figured that besides being good to eat and a nice change from the yogurt, flour, butter and greens-based diet which we had been enjoying for several days, we could also create something for the village residents to talk about for a week or two.
This was in July, but summer comes late up in the village, so the tomatoes weren’t ready, but Anne had some from last year in jars. There was some terrific fresh garlic in the ground, and Baba’s (father’s) bumper crop of reyhan (an herb that is almost identical to Italian basil) was in perfect shape to be picked. (I wondered for a minute why those unnamed-greens couldn’t be jazzed up a little with some zesty reyhan, but I am, after all, only the junior bride in the family, and far be it from me, etc.)
My husband and his Baba dug the garlic for me and then went back to the garden to argue about which reyhan leaves would be best for the pizza. I cooked up a dynamite pizza sauce, which my mother-in-law couldn’t believe contained no onions, only lots of garlic. Anne made some of the pide into the shape I wanted and we used round börek pans for the baking. She had some liquid oil on hand, which was the first time I had seen any lipid besides butter in that kitchen. I was very glad I didn’t have to use melted butter for the pizza, although Baba might have liked it better. He thinks food without butter in it is beyond suspect, perhaps even deadly to old people, but he was gracious in this case, willing to trust his exotic daughter-in-law’s judgment.
Ready to be baked
Finally our little tribe had two gorgeous organic pizzas ready for the oven. My husband took off proudly down the street like an Italian waiter carrying the two pans covered with two snowy dishcloths to protect them from the flies. I followed with my camera, much to the delight of the villagers on their front porches, who pretty much laughed and pointed, although they didn’t jeer.
My husband had forgotten, and I never knew, that there are mysterious rules for who gets to use the oven and when. At the time we got there it was a full house and because of our presence it got much fuller. It was a very warm day and the fire seething in its stone cave made it positively, well, “baking” in there. A lady was moving her several loaves of bread around in the oven using a wooden paddle. With breath-taking self-assurance, she moved some loaves nearer the pile of embers in the side of the oven, some farther away, flipping out done loaves and shoveling in fresh ones, in a virtual ballet of practiced baker-ship. And she chatted at the same time! She laughingly told my husband that no, there wasn’t room for our two itty-bitty pizzas, but that she would be done in about 20 minutes. She had a baking emergency -- visitors from out of village. Of course, the two ladies behind her, and ahead of us, might be spoken to, but there was definitely no room for us to slip anything in during her shift.
The two ladies, instead of making their bread at home and bringing it to the bakery, which many ladies do, were whipping up several dozen loaves of pide right in that hot room, on the wooden table, which was covered in clean newspaper. They had some fresh eggs they were skillfully cracking and lightly beating right in the shell, using them to augment some of their loaves. They and my husband had quite a little discussion over cutting in to their time, which was approaching rapidly and involved a plateau emergency, the trip to which would commence before the following dawn.
About then, the son of the lady who lives across the street from our folks came to pick up the huge tray of loaves his mother had finished earlier. He was there to take them back to the house and also to escort his mother home. There was more conversation, where it sounded like the adults were all making sure this teenager could find his way safely, all of about 50 meters down the road.
About then a crazy lady came in, wanting to butt in, and indeed doing so, to re-heat her bread from yesterday, scowling and hissing as she did just that. I say “crazy” because she did them one at a time, so that after doing four or five, the first ones were cold again. Maybe it had something to do with kicking up the flavor, but all she said was that her husband wanted them reheated. I didn’t really believe that; I think she just wanted to go ahead of people, but nobody, my husband included, interfered with a crazy lady with reheated hot bread in her hands.
After she left, and it seemed like my husband and the two ladies ahead of us had reached an agreement, in walked a local man, the only male in sight besides my husband and the now-departed teenager. I don’t think anyone knew exactly why he was there, but my camera may have had something to do with it. He seemed to think I had asked if I could take his picture and proceeded to demonstrate his skill with the bread paddle, asking no one’s permission, smartly putting loaves in and taking them out of that hot oven, a cigarette dangling from his smiling lips the while. Of course, I took his picture -- he was charming and really quite good at shoveling that bread.
Finally, we got to cook our pizza. Unfortunately, after all this time in the heat, the pide no longer looked like pizza dough but much more like two very large profiteroles, with tomato sauce instead of chocolate. No matter, we sometimes have deep-crust pizza in the US and no one here knew the difference anyway. I can confidently say that this was the first time in our village’s history that pizza was ever cooked in the village bakery -- perhaps the first time pizza was cooked in the entire village.
After only two hours from the time we had left the house, we proudly walked home to our hungry but proud parents, bearing two big, fat, golden-brown, garlic-glazed village-style pizza pies. Baba ate one all by himself.
Since that wonderful evening at the bakery, I have learned the rules for when you get to bake: The first baker of the day, who is either generous, owes a favor or is in need of a gift of some flour, starts the oven with her wood, as more wood is needed to start the fire than to keep it going later. As the ladies plan their day, they drop by the bakery and leave a bundle of wood in the order of arrival, for when it is their turn to bake, never forgetting which bundle is theirs. In this way, the order of baking for the day is established, and each baker uses her supply to sustain the fire. However, if you are baking little breads for guests, or if you have unexpected company, or if you just want to reheat a few pieces of bread, it is almost always OK to slip in, unless the ladies who lined up their wood first have a bigger emergency than you do.
Now, how could I not have known that?