‘Ekmek’: that means bread in Turkish. It is indeed the staple of life here. A Turk without bread on his table would be an unhappy man. While bread to us probably signifies sandwiches, here, it really represents life itself. It is considered a sin to throw away even stale bread. The word ‘günah’ (sin) is very strong. I remember when I was a child growing up in England, my mother would save the stale bread so we could feed the ducks. This doesn’t seem to be an option here: stale bread is used for köfte, the delicious meatballs they make. We might make breadcrumbs in our food processors and freeze them. But what you most definitely mustn’t do is just chuck it in the bin.
So my friend Elaine and I drove to Paşaköy, the neighbouring village where Mehmet and Hatice live. This baking bread turned out to be a lesson in teamwork. The firın -the outdoor oven – was going full pelt when we arrived, the flames almost leaping out. There has been a full force gale raging since last night but the firın was in a protected spot. Hatice had prepared the dough for 3 loaves for her family of 5; her mother had 1 and her mother-in-law another 1. Then a neighbour who was also a relative arrived with her dough. These were all in metal containers, risen, and ready to go. When the heat of the coals was right, these were upended onto an ancient wooden paddle and pushed into the heart of the firin. It was a joint effort: Hatice’s mother was in charge of the paddle, Hatice emptied each bowl, and Mehmet’s mother floured the paddle for each load of dough. They were amazingly swift, so much so, it was hard to take pictures. For the loaves to be well-risen, maintaining the level of heat is imperative.I have had the most fabulous afternoon. Hatice, the wife of Mehmet, our gardener and general handyman, phoned me to say she was making bread today. I had been waiting for her call for a few days. Because it is Ramazan, they are eating less bread as there is a special bread called ‘pide’ which is only baked during this holy month and they are eating this so she wasn’t quite sure when they were going to run out of regular bread next. During this month, all devout Moslems abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. You have to admire them in this heat as not even a drop of water passes their lips. İftar, the special meal that is eaten to break the fast, is at around 8.15pm these days. It literally depends on when the sun sets. Meanwhile, Pelin and I are consuming a 19 litre container of water every 2-3 days ….
Then we were ushered into Hatice’s sitting room where she graciously offered us tea, despite the fact that none of the other adults were drinking anything. It was just us with the women and Hatice’s children. After only about half an hour, one of the small loaves appeared on a special tray just for us, along with butter and salt, for us to sample. Again, don’t forget that nobody else was eating anything at all. It was delicious.
Well, fresh, hot bread usually is! We resisted the temptation to tuck in. After another 40 minutes or so, we went to witness the other loaves coming out of the oven which were all beautifully risen and firm.
Finally, while it was still all systems go, and the oven continued to burn hot, Hatice’s mother quickly washed the fresh figs from their trees that had been drying in the sun for the last 4 days. This got rid of any ants or flies that had got into them. They were washed again in salty water, to counteract the sweetness apparently and also to disinfect, and then put onto trays. These were then inserted into the firın to give them a final bake. Thus in winter, no nasty surprises of half-mouldy dried figs, just wonderful sun-filled mouthfuls of goodness.I noticed some small things also being retrieved from the firın and realised that they were eggplants! These are delicious when cooked like this: what you do is scoop out the flesh with a spoon, mash it with a fork, and then add yogurt, garlic, a judicious amount of lemon juice with a bit of olive oil and a little salt. This is called patlıcan salatası: eggplant salad. Yummy! Of course you can soften up the eggplants in a regular oven but they won’t have that delicious oven-baked taste. For a bit more taste, you can grill them directly over a gas flame but this makes the most horrendous mess so honestly I don’t recommend it.
Of course, what we have here is very unsophisticated compared to what is available in Istanbul. But these loaves and the ones from the central bakery have absolutely no preservatives in them. This is great but it does mean that they if you are not careful, they become as hard as stone by nightfall! Seriously, you can hardly get your knife through them.One of the big loaves had a pattern on it and we wondered why. Turned out the dough had been resting in a colander so when it was upended on the paddle, the pattern came through!
Tip: What I do is cut the loaves into quarters while fresh, and freeze them. This works beautifully. Judicious de-frosting ensures yummy toast for breakfast!