Friday, April 8, 2016

Our Daily Bread

In the summer of 2014 I took a two-week trip to Lebanon. While I was there, in addition to seeing the family and playing tourist, I took hundreds of photos and scribbled down old recipes with the intent of doing a series of posts about Lebanese food, geography, food, culture, food, ancient monuments, and of course, food.

It wasn’t my first trip to Lebanon, but I hadn’t been back in 14 years, so for all that was already familiar, there were twice as many things that seemed new. Two weeks is not nearly enough time to see everything—even though the whole country is roughly the size of Los Angeles County—but we managed to squeeze in a lot of sightseeing and some heroic eating. I probably gathered enough material for a book, let alone a few blog entries.

Well, here I am eighteen months later, and I still haven’t gotten around to posting anything about that trip! Part of the problem is that with so much stuff, I hardly knew where to start. But today I found myself talking with one of my students about how to make pita bread, and I was reminded of this unfinished project. So I guess I’ll start with a post about bread!

The most commonly used type of bread, what we call pita or pocket bread in the US, is called simply “Arabic bread” in Lebanon. It bears little resemblance to what I find in my local supermarket. The bread is very thin, supple, and lightly golden. The standard size that most bakeries sell is about 10-12 inches in diameter, large enough for a sandwich wrap, though you’ll find smaller sizes (6-8 inches) served in restaurants.

Every neighborhood has its bakery, and we visited one in my grandparents’ village, which still bakes its bread in a traditional wood-fired oven instead of the commercial gas ovens used in many modern bakeries.

The building dates to the early 19th century, maybe?
Notice the stash of extra firewood on the roof!

The original door.

Finished loaves, and the supply of firewood that makes them possible.

First, flour, water, yeast, and salt are mixed into dough and kneaded briefly in an enormous machine.

Then it is portioned by weight into little balls.

Another machine presses the balls into thin discs, which then are placed on long peels to await their turn in the oven.

The shaping of the dough and the wait time between the steps is all it gets in terms of kneading and rising, which is to say not much at all.

The dough rounds are placed in the oven, where they puff up like balloons. This central air bubble is what creates the bread’s characteristic “pocket.” A loaf of pita bakes in about 45 seconds. You can see it happen in real time in this video:

The finished product

As the loaves cool, the air escapes and they flatten. The bakers pack them up in bags for the waiting customers.

There is another wonderful kind of bread baked on the type of oven you see below, a hemisphere of metal heated from below. It’s a gorgeously flaky, paper-thin crackly flatbread that is utterly irresistible, especially when it’s hot off the fire.

You can see the whole process of shaping and cooking the dough in the video below. If you watch with the sound on, you’ll hear some traditional music, the usual mashup of Arabic and French in conversation, and the snap of the crisped flatbread.