Bread was never wasted in our house when I was a child growing up in New Zealand. Our dinner table always had a basket of bread in the middle of the setting. My mother cooked mainly Greek food, which meant that there always a sauce to dip the bread in, or at least a salad to mop up the oil, an imported variety from Spain or Italy, which we always bought at an Italian delicatessen's near our house. I still don't throw away any bread scraps; old habits die hard. At least there's the dog to eat them up.
I thought it had something to do with God and the little cubes of antidoro bread we were given after the Sunday liturgy we regularly attended at the Greek Orthodox church near our home. If we had eaten something or even had a sip of water to drink before we went to church, we weren't supposed to eat the antidoro the priest distributed at the end of the service. We would still take it though; no one wanted to be seen not accepting the antidoro, as it would be a tell-tale sign of a) having consumed something before the service (ie you had broken the Sunday morning fast), b) menstruation (in the case of women), or c) some other kind of sin rendering you unholy. If you didn't eat it, you discreetly brought out a handkerchief (all good girls carried a clean cotton one in their handbags in those days), rolled it up around the bread, put it in your bag (the good Sunday one that you had reserved for weekly church attendance), and tried to remember to take it out when you got home so that it wouldn't become rock cake after you discovered it just before next week's service. Hopefully you would also remember to eat it first thing the next morning before you had your coffee. If you didn't remember, have no fear, it did not mean you would burn in hell; you could throw it in the garden, in a place that no human foot would tread on it, and let the birds and worm peck on it, until it became one with the soil.
After many years of living in Crete, I found it had just as much to do with poverty as it did with the Almighty. Neither my father nor my mother grew up with fresh bread every day, even though it was a staple part of their daily meal. Their bread would be cooked twice a month in huge amounts, enough to last them until the next time bread-baking was on the daily list of chores. Even though bread was never (and still isn't) in short supply in our house, we were made to feel guilty if we picked up a slice from the basket and ate only a part of it. The bread we bought in New Zealand (squared loaves, pre-cut, spongy, tasteless) would become as dry as cardboard if it was left out of the plastic bag it came in, and nobody wanted to eat the remainder of a slice of bread that someone else had started. So we had to learn to either eat the whole slice or not eat any bread at all (no one in our house chose the latter).
Bread is still an essential element at a Greek table. All urban neighbourhoods have a local bakery, or at least an outlet that sells fresh bread daily. There are hundreds of neighbourhoods in Athens alone, which shows how important the custom of fresh daily bread on the table still is. Bread is never bought pre-sliced (unless you buy it at the supermarket or ask for it as 'tost', meaning toast-bread). Most people will buy fresh bread every day, or at least every second day. No matter what your meal, bread is on the table. You may be eating pilafi or makaronada, but the bread will still be laid next to your plate. It's customary for most people to eat a slice with each meal.
Bread also constituted a necessary cutlery item at the table. In New Zealand, we had learnt to eat with a piece of bread being used as a makeshift knife. We would use our fork or spoon (according to what kind of meal was being served) to prod our food with, and the bread to push harder or more fiddly bits onto it. Knives are considered important items of cutlery only in restaurants. Meat is still tackled with the fingers; it is difficult to eat Greek-style meat any other way, as meat is traditionally never cleared of the bones before it's cooked. An old Cretan proverb that is still said when people sit down to eat states: "Το κρέας και η γυναίκα θέλουν χέρια" (Meat and woman need hands).
My son enjoying papara with his fasolada. This photograph inspired this post.
Bread is also used to mop up the remaining sauces on a plate after the main part of the meal has been eaten; the salad oil remaining after the actual salad has been eaten is always consumed in this manner. This eating fashion is called papara (not to be confused with the slang meaning of the same word). A favorite snack of my own children is psomi me ladi (ψωμί με λάδι): toasted slices of sourdough bread slathered in olive oil and sprinkled with lemon juice and salt.
The essentiality of bread being on the Greek table is being challenged by new laws. Restaurants used to charge a cover price per person, which usually indicated the price of the bread. When the law changed (only recently) and made it an infringement of the law to charge the κουβέρ (cover charge), most tavernas stopped bringing bread to the table, unless otherwise instructed to do so by the patrons. Others bring it anyway, maybe out of habit, and face the risk of being reprimanded by the I-know-my-rights customers.
Best bread I've eaten in years - the flour was freshly ground by windpower at Lemonia.
Globalisation has tried hard to eradicate "one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life" from everyone's dining table all over the world, especially in the carb-phobic times we live in, with the rise of the slim and slender Atkins dieters. But there are still people who refuse to go without that slice of daily bread; the famous novelist Marian Keyes describes a particularly funny episode in her life when her daily bread was threatened. Sadly, there is also a small sign of this in Crete: remote villages have lost both their baker and bakery, relying on corner stores, special deliveries and the weekly shop at the supermarket for their daily bread, which could be a sign of things to come in Greece when it concerns the world of the daily loaf...
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