For many, the new year is an opportunity for renewal, perhaps even change. For me, it has also become a contemplative time, one of paring down, of simplicity and quiet. At this time of year, without really thinking about it, I find myself leaving my cell phone off when I wake in the mornings. I choose silence over the sounds of NPR (and while in Greece, my favorite station, Δεύτερο Πρόγραμμα). This morning, I left the house lights off and made our first cups of coffee by the hushed glow of candlelight.
I also find I crave the simplest of foods. One such food is traditional paximadia, or barley rusks, a staple in Greece since antiquity.
Twice-baked to ensure a long shelf life, paximadia (the singular is paximadi) are hard and dry until softened with a little water, wine or oil. They are rustic, yes, but delicious, with an earthy tang of barley, one that pairs beautifully with the foods we eat with the rusks. Although the paximadi went out of style for a time in Greece in favor of lighter, softer breads, in our region, the southeastern Peloponnesos, where some still grow and mill their own grains and where most still follow generations-old cooking traditions, paximadia remained a staple food.
Because they are easily portable, paximadia were often baked in preparation for journeys short and long. They were also (and still are in our region) typically found in the shepherd’s trovas, or shoulderbag. Friends of mine keep them stashed in the trunks of their cars for roadside picnics or for sustenance whilst gathering wild greens. We eat them in place of bread with salad, soup or stew, or as a snack with a little touloumotiri (the mother of feta cheese), a sliced tomato, a handful of olives, and a bit of wine.
In her paper for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking, the historian and author Aglaia Kremezi writes, “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 Croatian peksimet, the Romanian pesmet, and the Venetian pasimata.” Aglaia later adds that, “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.”
Today, paximadia are experiencing a resurgence throughout Greece and come in all shapes, flavors and sizes. “Dark” paximadia are made entirely with barley. Some bakers craft a lighter version using a combination of barley and wheat flours. Others use rye or chick pea flour. Some paximadia are sweet and crumbly, others are savory. Some are flavored with orange or lemon, others with anise, sesame, even chocolate; still others are seasoned with sea salt and herbs.
No matter the combination, in our village, paximadia are commonly baked along with bread and pites (pies, both savory and sweet) in our neighbors’ outdoor, wood-fired ovens. On those days, the air fills with an intoxicating mix of scents: olive wood burning, wild greens and touloumotiri melding within layers of handmade pita dough, bread dough rising and baking, and the scent of paximadia.
How does one eat traditional barley rusks? As one would eat bread with lunch or dinner or as a snack with a hunk of cheese, a sliced tomato and a bit of wine. One of my favorite uses of paximadia is in a salad called dakos (the Cretan word for paximadi). To make dakos salad, dampen a rusk in water or wine, break it into bite-sized chunks, and place the chunks on a plate. Onto the paximadi, heap chopped tomatoes, red onions and feta. Top the lot with olive oil, capers and olives, perhaps even some chopped garlic and most definitely sea salt, pepper and oregano. So delicious…thinking of it now makes my mouth water.
Two years ago (in early January, no less), I posted a recipe for traditional barley paximadia. Then, at some point last year the post vanished, inexplicably, from my website. (Again, I send thanks to those of you who alerted me it was missing!) While I did eventually manage to find and restore the post, being rather limited in technical savvy I’m not sure any of you received notice that it had returned. In case not, and in the spirit of the renewal and simplicity of the new year, I will post it again today. It is my spin on a recipe I found in the Greek cookery tome, Vefa’s Kitchen or Η κουζίνα της Βέφας, by Vefa Alexiadou. It is basic and can be played with a bit by changing the ratio of barley to wheat flour or adding seasonings, such as anise seed, oregano or thyme.
Καλή χρονιά με υγεία και χαρά! Happy New Year to you and, as always, thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.
Traditional Barley Rusks or Paximadia
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 tbsp dried yeast
- 2-3 cups lukewarm water
- 6 cups barley flour
- 1 tbsp sea salt
- 4 tbsp honey
- ½ cup olive oil plus enough oil for oiling pan
Combine the all-purpose flour and yeast in a bowl and add enough lukewarm water to make a thick batter. Allow this to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
Into a large bowl, sift together the barley flour and salt. Make a well in the center. In a cup or a bowl, mix the honey with a little of the remaining lukewarm water and pour into the well, adding the olive oil and the yeast mixture.
Incorporate the dry ingredients, adding enough of the remaining lukewarm water to form a soft, sticky dough. Knead until the dough comes away from the side of the bowl and is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size. Meanwhile, grease 2 or 3 large cookie sheets with olive oil.
When the dough has risen sufficiently, punch it down and knead it for 6-7 minutes on a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into 16-20 pieces. Shape these as you would a bagel by rolling each piece into a rope about 10 inches long and joining the ends together, overlapping them slightly.
Place the rings, spaced well apart, on the cookie sheets. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
After the rings have risen, use a sharp knife to score a line horizontally around them so they can later be easily divided in half. Bake for 1 hour.
Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut the rings in half horizontally along the scored lines. Place the oven on its lowest setting and bake the split rings for 2-3 hours to dry out completely.
Let cool and store in airtight containers. Stored this way, your paximadia will keep for up to 6 months.
Makes 16-20 rusks
To soften barley rusks, hold them briefly under running tap water until dampened, but far from soggy. Καλή όρεξη!