I’m always amazed by the sheer quantity of different breads that are eaten around the world. From the same basic ingredients of flour, yeast, water and salt there are breads that are crumbly, chewy, crispy, flakey, bland, full flavoured, thin sheets, long baguettes, round loaves, rectangular loaves and everything in between.
At home, getting bread is a very simple matter but in some places it can be exceedingly difficult. After crossing the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, we stopped in a small village to get some bread from one of the tiny cluttered grocery shops. We were told that their bread normally came from Oruro (about 300km away), but because it had rained, the dirt roads turned to mud and thus the bread van couldn’t get through!
In China bread is pretty much non existent, apart from the XinJiang region (the Capital Urumchi was the location of the riots last June) where the Uyghur people live, but as soon as I crossed the border into Kazakhstan, bread was available in abundance. In Central Asia, the loaves are usually a saucer shape with a thick outer crust and thin patternated centre. At the end of a long day in the Kyrgyz mountains I was searching a town for bread to no avail, when my nose picked up a faint whiff of fresh bread. I followed the sweet enticing aroma to the local bakers where they were cooking a fresh batch in an outdoor clay pot oven. First I watched as the baker placed and spread the slightly sticky dough onto a clay disc (which formed the pattern in the centre), then lean into the open topped oven and stick the dough to the side. Once cooked it was absolutely delicious, and I ate an entire loaf before moving on.
Bread is believed to be blessed by God in Iran and Uzbekistan (and perhaps other countries too), and thus there are certain faux pas to be avoided. For example, you should not put bread on a plate upside down, and if it becomes inedible and you must throw it away, it should be put in a separate bread bin and not mixed in with the other rubbish. If you see bread lying on the street, you should not step over it, but move it over to the to the side where it will not be trodden on.
The best bread I’ve tasted so far was in Mashad, Iran, which was “Sangak” (in photo above, Fearghal did manage to leave me a little!) a gigantic 3ft long sheet of chewy bread that had been cooked on small pebbles which indent the dough and give a lovely proportion of crispy edges and soft middle.
And as Mr Kipling would say, it was “Exceedingly Good”.