The cultural relation of Greeks with their bread

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Thinking of my motherland, my mind is filled with a magnitude of simplicity: A tavern by the sea-side, fried mullets, warm yeasty bread with olive oil and feta cheese, a ntakos (dried Cretan bread) with tomato and kopanisti (smearable cheese mix), followed by a refreshing slice of watermelon. Products refined by the primordial wisdom of the people and that perfection which is found in simplicity.

What about this: You can cut three slices of bread, add some salt, oregano, thyme, some olive oil, bake in the oven and there you have the perfect supper. It encloses all the simplicity of the diet followed by the monks in an orthodox monastery, where simplicity defines wisdom. In such monasteries it feels like the material flows without gravity. This simplicity travels you to eternity. In the Greek tradition, the bread is considered to be blessed, so when on the table, if it drops off to the floor, it is placed on the window so that the birds can be fed. The bread’s sacredness, is yielded upon it when it is prepared with that much effort and blessed with respectable tradition.

More than 2.500 years ago, the Greeks offered bread to the Gods. That was the case during the “Thesmoforia”, when the Greeks celebrated Goddess Demetra.  Another example of the bread’s importance for the Greeks, even from the old times, is depicted in 4 Figurines, made in the 5th century b.c., found in Boeotia (central Greece) and actually kept in the museum of Bread of Ulm (Germany) portray the milling, the kneading, the baking and the consumption of the bread.

Additionally, the bread is part and parcel of the Greek Orthodox religious tradition, where it symbolises Christ’s body. Bread products have a special position in the Greeks’ religious celebrations, like Christmas, Easter, Holy Mass and throughout important milestones of the life’s cycle: In the baptism, in the wedding and in the memorials. The bread has been associated with the fight of the Greeks for survival and together with olive oil, it constitutes an integral part of our nutrition. It is so closely associated with the Greeks’ life that the Greek language includes the expression “I make my own bread” meaning “I make a living.” When someone is moribund, Greeks would say that “their bread is over.” Either in the case of dark or white bread, either if it is made out of corn, barn, rye, oat, with raisins, olives or cheese it is a vital part on the Greek nutrition. Its ingredients are simple: Yeast, flour and water. The flour can be made out of wheat, barley, corn etc., but it requires a great effort from the farmer, so that the seeds, dispersed upon the ground, will become corn and the corn will evolve into our bread. That is where the yeast and the intensive kneading play their part. In the yore and even today, the kneading was considered to be a sacred process, taking place once per week and requiring sacredness and respect. Even today, in numerous Greek villages the bread is being prepared in wood ovens.

The bread can be found on the basis of the Mediterranean diet, containing the elements that give people the required daily energy. It has been this way for more than 10.000 years, when the wheat was cultivated for the first time, helping people move being hunters to farming and having a permanent accommodation. The bread accompanies humanity throughout the millennia, starting from the Neolithic era in order to reach the wide contemporary variety.

In the contemporary Greek poetry, the bread holds an important position. For this dimension, the poem of Giannis Ritsos reads:

“Peace is the clenched hands of the people

It is the warm bread in the table of the universe

It is the smile of the mother.

Only this.

Peace is nothing else.

And the plows that carve deep furrows on the land

They only write one name:

Peace. Nothing else. Peace.”

Alexandros Kyriakakis