Our NGO, The Ideas Partnership, works in the Roma community of Fushe Kosove. Food is scarce there, in families where there can be ten people sleeping in one room, for warmth, and where the men spend their days going through the municipal skips looking for scrap they can resell, while the women go begging. As anyone who has ever been on a diet will tell you, when you can’t eat, it becomes all you can think about. Food defines us, and more than once when I’ve been talking to women in Fushe Kosove their bemused questions have circled around my family (am I married? do I have children? are my parents still alive?) before settling on the immediate identifier of ‘do you make your own bread, or do you buy it?’.
I always disappoint – no children and no, I don’t make my own bread. My answers make both me and my interviewers slightly uncomfortable; we’re aware that some incompetence has been revealed. For the children they assure me that there is still time, but for the bread… So yesterday, when I bought the ingredients for the challah I ate this morning there was some curiosity. At the shop in the mahalla where I usually buy chocolate or snacks I bought some yeast. The shopkeeper smiled, ‘ah, so you’re making your own bread now?’. Setting off with the packet of yeast in my bag, I was stopped by another man from the neighbourhood. ‘I see you’ve bought yeast. You’re making your own bread?’. Like a proving loaf, the pressure was rising.
The bread I ended up making was nothing like the round trays of pogaqe made by the women in this community in their wood ovens to feed huge hungry families. I was trying out a fiddly recipe which uses honey for plaited challah loaves. I spent the evening kneading and punching down, rolling and basting with egg yolk – with bread, as with breeding I suppose, there’s a physicality to the process that makes you feel you are doing something elemental.
And the loaves were ready for breakfast this morning. They looked and tasted great – light, just slightly sweet. When I go to Fushe Kosove today I hope conversation turns to that question again; I am become, temporarily, a woman who makes her own bread.
My adaptation of a recipe for challah:
1 tablespoon yeast
1.25 cups warm water
2 eggs, beaten
A third of a cup of vegetable oil
3 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons salt
5-7 cups flour
1 yolk, beaten and optional sesame seeds – for topping
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add eggs, oil, honey, salt and 3 cups flour. Mix, and gradually add more flour until the dough is stiff. Place remaining flour on surface and knead the dough into it until it is smooth and the flour is absorbed. If it’s still sticky, add more flour. Place dough in a large bowl covered with oiled plastic and allow to rise in a warm place for 1.5 hours. Punch down and divide into 6 portions. Twist each portion into a rope an inch in diameter and make loaves by braiding three ropes for each. Place each loaf in a pan and allow to rise for 45 minutes. Brush top with egg yolk (and sesame seeds if you like). Bake at 190 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
For other honey recipes and adventures (including the story of pogaqe bread, mentioned above), see my Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo, published by Signal Books (2011) and available through bookshops and on Amazon.