Bread’s Mysterious Beginnings

Greek women believe that bread rises by divine intervention. If you tell them that a batter of flour and water will ferment from the various airborne microorganisms if left for a few days, they refuse to believe it. They are certain that only the direct power of God can turn a mere flour batter into a leavening medium. This is the reason why prozymi (pronounced pro-ZEE-me) –the natural sourdough starter used in traditional baking– is always made either on September 14 —the day the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates the discovery of the cross on which Jesus was crucified— or near the end of Holy Week, preceding Easter.

On both occasions, some leaves or flowers are added to the flour and water mixture: If the prozymi is started around Easter, the mixture contains a handful of the flowers that have been used to decorate the Epitaphios—a representation of Jesus’ coffin which is paraded through the streets decorated with flowers, in the solemnfuneral-like procession on Good Friday evening. If the dough is mixed on the Day of the Cross, a sprig of basil is included in the prozymi batter. But not just any sprig, but one taken from the bunch the priest has used to sprinkle the congregation with holy water. According to Greek religious myths, fragrant basil was the plant growing around the Holy Cross, a sign that allowed Saints Constantine and Helen to distinguish Jesus’ cross from among the many others in the area. To commemorate the event, on the eve of the holiday women bring to the church pots of aromatic small-leafed basil plants that they have grown with much care all through the summer.

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Much secrecy surrounds the making of prozymi. I have asked many women on various islands to describe the process and received only vague answers: “You mix a few handfuls of flour with some lukewarm water, add the blessed basil or the Epitaphios flowers and, because the mixture is blessed, after a while” —they never say how long exactly — “the mixture starts to develop little bubbles. Then you gradually add flour for the next couple of days, and your prozymi is ready.”

Peasant and educated women alike insist that without the blessed additions, the mixture of flour and water will not ferment. Some of the women I talked to specified that the flour for the starter is a mixture of barley flour and all-purpose white flour bought from the supermarket. The women distinguished this from thestarenio, which is used in the bread dough. Starenio means “wheat flour,” but the term has come to mean the locally ground yellowish semolina-like hard flour, once very common in the islands, especially those of the northern Aegean. The wheat for starenio is now grown primarily in central mainland Greece, and this, very important flour is available at the central markets of the large cities and in some old-fashioned grocery stores all over the country.

I tried adding sprigs of basil and different flowers to the mixture of flour and water, thinking that they might speed up the process of fermentation, as do grapes. Basil made no difference, but some of the flowers did. Wild marigolds, the purple flowers of a gigantic thistle that looks like a miniature artichoke and a few others seemed to quicken the fermentation a little. The dried flowers of hops –the plant used in making beer– worked wonders. But the hops-induced starter is not strong or lasting. The first bread you make with it has an interesting cheese-like flavor. The Greek women who still keep the tradition and bake bread regularly will tell you that they have almost forgotten when they first started their prozymi or who gave them the initial piece of dough starter. They make sure to save a piece of the dough every time they make bread, and usually have another one in the freezer as a backup. One day before baking, the old-dough starter is kneaded together with roughly its weight in flour and water, and left overnight (or for 24 hours) until it doubles in size and becomes bubbly. With this they make their breads, keeping a piece of dough for the next time, and so on…

Since I couldn’t find a precise recipe for this elusive prozymi, I decided to rely on Peter Reinhart’s very detailed instructions to produce my first natural starter, using barley and white flour, and some honeywith the water. I wasn’t that meticulous, especially during the last phase –the three-day daily feeding of the mother starter. Maybe this is the reason why my bread –kneaded with three different flours– is more rustic, heavy and chewy than the traditional French breads. But it is exactly like the large, old-fashioned homemade loaves I remember from my childhood. And thus is good enough for me!

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