When, in the fifties, Ansel Keys and his colleagues studied the eating habits, the state of health, and life expectancy of various peoples in seven countries, they decided that the inhabitants of Crete were faring best of all. Paximadia (barley rusks) in those days were the staple food of the Cretans. But when their traditional eating habits became the model for the now famed Mediterranean diet, the barley biscuits were translated into “whole wheat bread” for the unaccustomed and refined Northern Europeans and Americans. Barley flour has now completely disappeared from the shelves of the supermarkets in the big cities, and one can only find it in health food stores or at wholesale distributors of animal fodder. But οn Kea as οn other islands we can get a pound or two from the local bakeries which still bake the traditional hard and dark paximadia.
Paximadia–barley rusks–in various shapes from the Greek islands and Crete.
An old man from Mykonos told me that not so long ago, merchant ships preferred his island as a stopover because sailors loved to stock up on paximadia from the local bakeries made with a combination of barley and wheat flour. Similar biscuits are baked in most islands of the Aegean and the ones from Crete are still the most popular throughout Greece. One can get various kinds of Cretan paximadia in food stores and supermarkets. Although the people belonging to the generation that traditionally fed on this kind of dried bread has either died or switched to more refined foods—like the fluffy supermarket, crustless, sliced bread–there is a new generation of consumers who have tasted paximadia during their summer vacations in the islands and loved them. Once back in the city they started to look for them in their local bakeries, so now in most Athenian neighborhoods one can find darker or lighter paximadia, baked using mixtures containing more or less barley flour in addition to the wheat flour that makes lighter and crunchier biscuits, which need no soaking.
The basic research for this piece was done in 1996 for the paper I delivered at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking and I would like, once again, to express my deep gratitude to Aliki Asvesta, of the Gennadius Library in Athens, for her invaluable help. The paper was published in the book with the Symposium proceedings (Food on the Move, Prospect Books which seems to be out of print). Alan Davidson included the word ‘paximadia’ in his encyclopedia The Oxford Companion to Food with references to my paper. Thus the word has now become part of the English-speaking food-lovers’ vocabulary.
Paximadi (plural paximadia) was and still is the Greek word for the traditional dark barley biscuit (rusk or hard tack); although in recent years the word came to mean all kinds of twice-baked bread–what Italians callbiscotti–both the savory and the sweet. Many believe that the word paximadi comes from Paxamus, a cook and author who had probably lived in Rome the first century AD. As food historian Andrew Dalby points out, from this Greek word came the Arabic bashmat or baqsimat, the Turkish beksemad, the Serbo Croatianpeksimet, the Romanian pesmet, and the Venetian pasimata.
European travelers’ amazement
“The staple food of the common people is a biscuit made of barley from which only the very outer husk has been discarded. They bake it two or three times a year. It is so black that when I showed a piece to one of our monks in Naxos, he sincerely told me that in France it would be bread to give to the dogs, but he doubted that even the dogs would eat it. Nevertheless, here the small children eat it from early morning on with great appetite, and they seem to be thriving. But it would cause hemorrhaging and death to those unaccustomed to it.” Writes Francois Richard who visited the island of Santorini in the 17th century “With this biscuit, which many soak in water before lunch, they eat their vegetables, their usual meal, because they only rarely taste meat, with the exception of the rich, who buy it once a year in order to secure that they will not go without it…”
Thevenot who visited Santorini a few years later, describes somewhat finer biscuits: “Their bread, which they call schises, is a kind of biscuit made with half wheat and half barley flour, black like tar, and so rough that one cannot swallow it; they only fire the oven twice a year… maybe they do it because they don’t have wood to burn and have to import it from Nio…. ”
Barley, cultivated in the Mediterranean from the beginnings of civilization, was for many centuries the basic food of the regional populations. It was roasted so that some of its husk could be rubbed off, then ground and mixed with water, spices, and maybe honey, to be made into gruel, or it was kneaded with water, shaped into cakes and then baked. The barley cakes were called maza, and according to the laws of Solon, maza was the everyday food of Athenians in classical times, while the more refined breads made of wheat or a combination of barley and wheat could only be baked on festive days. “…when we come to our regular daily food we require that our barley cake (maza) be white, yet take pains that the broth which goes with it be black, and stain the fine color of the cake with the dye ” writes the comic writer Alexis. Maza was probably a kind of heavy unleavened flat bread, unlike paximadi, which is first baked as leavened bread. The way mazawas eaten though, dipped in a more or less rich broth, as this paragraph reveals, was very similar to the way paximadi is consumed to this day.
Since barley contains less gluten than wheat, the bread made with it is heavy, darker in color and dries faster. So it is not surprising that it was baked again in order to be preserved. “…but the flavor is good, with an unmistakably earthy tang — anyone who has ever eaten a good barley or Scotch broth will recognize the taste and the aroma…” writes Elizabeth David. She advises modern bakers to add a small amount of barley to their usual wheat flour when making bread, a widespread tradition in most Mediterranean countries.
C.S. Sonnini, who visited Greece and Turkey in the last years of the 18th century, writes that in Kimolos (then called Argentiere) and in the other islands of the Aegean, people only baked barley bread. He is one of the very few who agree with Davis on its taste: “…having lived there for a long time, I did not find this bread disagreeable, but thought it tasty and appetizing”. Sonnini also claims that all over the Orient barley bread was the usual food, and the Jews used it a lot in their diet.
Either baked in the form of a loaf, or shaped like a large doughnut, the bread destined to be made intopaximadia is sliced –vertically in the case of the loaf and horizontally in the case of the doughnut– and left to dry for many hours in a low oven. Dipyros artos (twice-baked bread) was the ancient word and both the Italian biscotti as well as the French and English biscuit, derive their names from the description of the technique in Latin (biscotto).
During Byzantine times, paximadia “…was probably the food that the future Emperor Justin II, uncle of Justinian, carried in his knapsack, the food that kept him alive on his long walk from Illyria to Constantinople; it was certainly food for soldiers and for frugal priests as well,” writes Dalby. In the mid-18th century,Nicolas-Ernest Kleeman writes that after the fall of the Byzantine Empire the Turks served biscuits to the army during their sea and land expeditions.
European travelers of the 17th and 18th century also carried with them biscuits during their long journeys over sea and land, but their biscuits were probably made with white wheat flour, much more refined than the rough paximadia of the poor inhabitants of the Orient. During his wanderings on camelback through the vast Ottoman Empire–or the Levant as the eastern Mediterranean region was often called–Carlier de Pinon thought that the Arab camel drivers were extremely grateful when offered a taste of the European biscuits. He describes with contempt the Arab flat breads prepared fresh each time the caravan stopped and baked using camel’s dung as fuel. My impression is that Europeans misjudged the big gestures with which Arabs politely thanked them. I have no doubt that the locals definitely preferred their fresh breads to the dried European biscuits, especially as they often rolled their warm pitas over stuffings of fresh cheese and dates, as documented by Sauveboef.
From the islands to the city
Paximadia were not just eaten as an accompaniment to cheese, olives or dried fish and meats, but were used as the main ingredient of cooked dishes. Villamont describes a soup made with “black biscuits”, water and salt, which was prepared by a Genoan, during his voyage from Cyprus to Jerusalem. Similar soups, with the addition of vegetables, herbs, pulses or even a little meat or fish, can be found in the peasant cooking of Greece, Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean countries. In the island of Santorini people make a kind of sweetmeat, pounding together in a mortar the very black local paximadia with sultanas and shaping the thick dough into walnut size balls, which they often roll on toasted sesame seeds.
Briefly dipped in water drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt and oregano, paximadi becomes a delicious snack, which is called riganada in the Peloponnese. In the island of Kea, I recently tasted soaked paximadia with kopanisti–the local sharp fermented soft cheese–and chopped tomatoes, an excellent combination. Food writer Colman Andrews mentions a very similar dish served in Triora, the backcountry above Sanremo. There the medium brown biscuits are baked with buckwheat, not barley flour, and are usually soaked in a combination of water and vinegar.
In the Calabrian bakeries and grocery stores on Arthur avenue, in New York’s Bronx, one finds barley biscuits similar to the ones from Crete. Their taste complements fantastically the spicy caccio cavallo cheese of southern Italy, which is covered with crushed dried peperoncini (hot chillies). In a similar way one could not find a more perfect combination than good Cretan paximadia and the hard sharp anthotyro of Crete.