I revisited paximadia last week because my friend Defne Koryürek from Ayvalık, on the other side of the Aegean, organized an e-workshop as part of the two-day interdisciplinary conference on Food Futures. She used my basic recipe for her lively presentation, and she invited me to take part and speak about the history and uses of paximadia, or peksimet as they call them in Turkey. It was a lovely experience that made me re-think paximadia as an ideal sustainable staple. It is time to revive the way our ancestors used this crunchy, twice-baked bread not just to accompany cheese and meze spreads –as I had suggested in the article I did for Eating Well magazine — but also instead of pasta in broths and soups, and of course in salads.
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 big cities, and one can only find it in health food stores or at wholesale distributors of animal fodder. But on Kea as on 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 in the old days 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 people belonging to the generation that traditionally fed on this kind of dried bread has either died or switched to more refined foods —like 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.