Baking Bread

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As promised in the introduction to the article on Halva Ardeh, I have chosen another extract from the book, The Traditional Crafts of Persia by Hans E. Wulff[1] on the varieties of bread and bread making in Iran in the 1930s:

Bread Baking

Most of the bread (nān, nūn) eaten in Persia is wheaten flat bread. Only in some rice-growing districts, e.g., the Caspian provinces, was a rice bread customary[2] which has lately been largely replaced by bread from wheat flour from the Plateau. The more common bread varieties are:

1. Nān-e sāj, an unleavened bread (nān-e fatīrī) baked by the nomads in the open, about 1/8-inch thick.

2. Nān-e tābūn, a bread similar to this also baked by the nomads, but in a primitive underground oven.

3. Lavāš, a thin, crisp bread, about 1/8-inch thick, unleavened or mildly leavened. This bread is also known as  nān-e tanūri, nān-e tāftūn. A bread made from the same dough, but stretched out particularly thinly is known as nān-e ḥūnegi. After baking it is almost as thin as paper.

4. Sangak is a bread particularly popular in large cities. It is softer than the lavāš and about 3/8-inch thick and leavened. It is also called nān-e h̬amīrī.

5. Nān-e barbarī is a bread of medium hardness, about ¾-inch thick and leavened like the sangak. It has its name from a community of Berbers which one of the Qajār šāhs settled south of Tehrān during the last century.

6. Nān-e roug̊anī or nān-e h̬oškeh, is made from an unleavened dough but contains fat in the form of melted sheep’s butter (roug̊an-e gūsfand). After baking it becomes dry and brittle like biscuits. It is available unsweetened or “ordinary” (ma’mulī), often sprinkled with sesame seed (konjed), and in a sweet variety (ŝīrīn) for which grape syrup (ŝīreh) or sugart (ŝakar) is added to the dough.

7. Nān-e ŝīrmāl, nān-e daŝtarī is a fine bread, more like a cake, eaten on feast days.

8. G̊olaj is similar to nān-e barbarī, but baked to a thickness of about 1 ½ inches. It is a popular bread in Māzandarān and Gorgān.

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The most primitive form of bread baking is found among the nomadic tribes all over the country. Chardin, who travelled for the king of France in Persia between 1665 and 1668, gave a description that would not be much different today[3]:

The baking is done daily and begins shortly before the meal starts. Whole meal and water are poured into a wooden mixing bowl and kneaded thoroughly. Then a fire is kindled between two stones, and a copper or steel plate is placed in position. The dough [h̬amīr] is moulded into a flat cake, placed on to the hot plate and baked for about three minutes, In the meantime the next cake is prepared, and a person can bake the need for a family of twelve in one hour. Sometimes poppy seed is sprinkled over the dough after it has been placed onto the hot plate, or the bread is rubbed with Asa foetida [ahing] the gum of a desert plant [Ferula foetida] which gives the bread a peculiar taste. This bread [nān-esāj] would have a diameter of 12 to 15 inches.

Another type of oven, known as tābūn, is used by the nomads of the north and the northwest. A fire is kept for a while in a clay-lined hole in the ground. When its walls are sufficiently hot the embers are taken out with an iron shovel, the flattened cake of dough is placed on the bottom of the hole, a steel plate or an earthenware dish is placed over it, and the whole is covered with the hot embers. After three to five minutes the bread is baked. An improvement on this oven is used by other nomads, e.g., those of H̬orāsān and Balūčistān. Near their camp they dig a hole in the ground, place the excavated earth around its edge, and also dig an air duct (bādkaš) leading to its bottom. The surface of this oven is smeared over with a mixture of loam and water, and after drying a fire is lighted at the bottom, and when the walls are sufficiently hot the flattened dough is placed against them and baked.

This method is in fact the transition to the most common oven, viz., the drum oven (tanūr, tāftūn, taftūn), which is found in town and village bakeries and in many private homes. The core of this oven is formed by a huge earthenware vessel with an open bottom and narrower top. This vessel is placed over a fireplace (āteš-h̬āneh) in the ground where a charcoal fire (or nowadays an oil burner) obtains its air through a channel that ends where the baker stands so that he can control the fire with a shutter operated by his foot. Since most baking has to be done shortly before the three meals of the day, breakfast (ṣobḥāneh), lunch (nāhār), and dinner (šām), there is usually a rush at the bakeries (nān-pazi) at these times, and most bakers work in teams to satisfy their customers’ demand for oven-fresh bread. The first to start work, about two hours before baking begins, is the mixer (h̬amīrgīr). Standing in front of a large trough (taštak, toug̊al, ṭag̊ār), he mixes (āmīh̬tan) one part of wheat meal and six parts of water, adds salt, and, when required, the leaven (āb-e torš). The latter is made from left-over dough from the day before, dissolved in water and kept in a warm spot near the oven. After thorough kneading (varzīdan) by hand the dough is left for fermentation.

Shortly before baking time the dough former (čūneh-gīr) takes dough from the trough and shapes it into lumps (čūneh, mošt). Although the law today requires weighing the dough lumps on a pair of scales the experienced baker usually forms them to the required size without weighing them. These lumps are taken over by the next man in the team, the dough flattener (nān-pahn-kon), who places one lump after the other on a marble block (sang-e marmar) and rolls (vardaneh kardan) each lump into a flat piece (pahn) about 3/8-inch thick, using a wooden rolling pin (vardaneh, h̬ūneh, čūb-e nān-paz). This finished, he throws the flat piece of dough across the bench to the dough stretcher (vāvar, šatir), who places it on a cotton-stuffed cushion (nān-banā, navan, navand) of 15 to 20 inches diameter and stretches (čap kardan) the dough right over the cushion, grips the underside of the cushion by a handle, inserts it into the hot oven and throws (goẕāŝtan) it against the inside wall so that it sticks to it. His forearms are bandaged to protect him from the radiating heat inside the oven, He takes the cushion back to the bench, puts the next piece of flattened dough on it, etc. The youngest in the team, the baker’s boy (pādō), does all the odd jobs such as getting water and meal to the trough, fuel to the oven, and so forth. The bread bakes partly through the heat accumulated in the oven walls and partly be direct radiating heat from the fire underneath. During the baking the bread develops bubbles. As soon as it is baked it begins to peel from the oven wall, and the oven man (vardas) picks it up with an iron skewer (sīh̬, nān-ĉīn) on a long wooden handle just before it would drop into the fire. This bread (nān-e tanūrī, tāftān, lavāŝ) is of good taste (and so are all the other bread types available in Persia), and while fresh it is crisp and resembles the Scandinavian Knӓkke bread.

The same oven is used for baking the bread known as nān-e roug̊anī or h̬oŝkeh. If a baker specializes in making this bread he is called h̬oŝkeh-paz.

Bakeries in the populous cities of Tehrān, Is̬fahān, and other provincial capitals could not manage to provide the amount of fresh bread that is needed at every mealtime by baking all this bread in drum ovens. A chea[per bread popular in these places is baked in huge ovens  fired with wood (hīzum), dry desert shrubs  (h̬ār) or, lately, crude oil (māzūt). The oven (tanūr-e sangakī, kūreh) contains an inclined, brick-built bank (sang-kūh) that is covered with clean river pebbles (sangak). In front of this bank there is a fireplace with an iron grill (sehpāyeh); fuel and combustion air enter through a hole in one side wall (sūrah̬-e zam̬būrak, sūlah̬-e zam̬būrak). The oven is covered with a vaulted cupola (tāq) made from sun-dried bricks. It has one or two smoke holes (dūd-daŝ). Two hours before baking begins the pebbles are levelled with a shovel (sang-kūb), and the firing begins. When the pebbles are hot enough, the fire is either switched over to another oven by means of an iron shutter, or the heat is reduced to maintain the baking temperature. The dough is prepared in the same way as the dough for the drum oven bread, but with the addition of yoghurt (māst) instead of leaven. The baker stands between the dough trough and a long-handled wooden shovel (pārū) with a blade about 18 inches square and slightly convex, The end of the blade rests on a ledge in front of the oven while the end of the long handle rests in a wooden fork, The baker wets the shovel blade with water (āb-e h̬amīr), takes a certain quantity of dough from the trough, and by beating it with his hands stretches it over the shovel blade. He then takes the shovel by its handle, inserts the blade into the oven and by turning it over places the dough square on the hot pebbles. While he prepares the next charge his assistant observes the baking, which takes about two minutes. When baked the assistant takes the bread from the oven with a two pronged fork (dō-ŝāh̬eh). This bread, weighing about 1 ½ pounds, is soft and shows the imprints of the pebbles, hence its name “pebble bread” (nān-e sangak(ī)). Some customers like this bread with coriander seed (siyāh-dāneh), which is sprinkled over the dough before it is placed into the oven.

For the baking of the barbarī bread the baker rolls a slightly drier dough into thin coils and arranges them on the shovel side by side, with one coil surrounding them. The shovel with the dough coils is transferred to an oven similar to the pebble oven, but with a horizontal bottom and without pebbles.

A;; the bread described so far is wholesome but coarse bread (nān-e ārd-h̬oŝk). At certain times of the year special kinds of fine bread (nān-e daŝtarī) are baked for the dough of this bread (nān-e ŝīrmāl) sugar (ŝakar), hone (’asal), eggs (toh̬m-e morg̊), milk (ŝir) and yoghurt (māst) are mixed with white flour (ārd-e daŝtarī), meal from which the coarser particles have been sifted off, After rolling and stretching on the cushion many slots are cut into the surface of the dough, and it is baked in the drum oven where the cuts open up, looking like lattice work. Often poppy seed (h̬aŝh̬aŝ), sesame (konjed), cardamom (hēl), or the grated roots of the nard plant (som̬bol-e hindī, nārdīn, Nigella sativa) are sprinkled over the dough before baking. People present one another with these breads, for instance, at the New Year celebrations, and for days the houses are filled with their sweet scent, contributing to the festive atmosphere.



[1] The Traditional Crafts of Persia, Their Development, Technology, and Influence on Eastern and Western Civilizations, Hans E. Wulff, MIT Press, 1975, pp 291-295

[2] Ibn H̬auqal, The Oriental Geography of Ibn Haukal. Translated by Sir William Ouselley, London, 1800, p.179

[3] Sir J. Chardin, Travels in Persia (A reprint of 1720-1724 English edition.) London , 1927 translated from E, Diez Iranische Kunst, p.211

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