Stone-Oven Bread

The island of Karpathos is located in the sparkling Aegean, midpoint between Crete and Rhodes. The beauty of the island lies in its simplicity. Once you realize time has done little to change the way of island life, you can start to understand the rhythm of Karpathos.

To the north lies the village of Olympos. The village was founded by those fleeing Algerian pirates because the area is far enough from the south ports to be easily reached and almost impossible to enter from the northern coast because of the cliffs.

Yes, that’s the smell of bread baking as you wander the footpaths and steps connecting the cubed houses. Bread means everything in Olympos. Planting of the wheat and barley starts in December and initiates the cycle of life in the village. The cycle continues through the harvesting and milling and the baking of the bread is done just as in days of old. Of the original 80 windmills, only a few are still in operation today.

Olympos bread is dark and heavy. The dough is simply wheat and barley flour, water and yeast. The origin of the yeast is mystical because all it requires is to put a mixture of water and flour out in the fresh mountain air. But legend says this must be done on that full moon night when the tide runs highest.

There’s nothing mysterious about the bread recipes themselves. Family recipes are happily exchanged, some with poppy, others with sesame seeds. The dough is kneaded, beaten, and boxed until the mass reaches the right consistency. While the dough is being prepared, the outdoor ovens are filled with olive branches. After an hour of preheating, the glowing ashes are swept with a broom to one side to make way for the bread.

Each matriarch uses a wooden seal to mark her round loaves before they are considered ready for the long uphill journey. Women in traditional dress trek up goat trails to the stone ovens scattered around the hillsides to bake the loaves much the way their grandmothers and great-grandmothers did for their families. Baking time is two to three hours, depending on the size of the loaves. As a general rule of thumb, if the kneading starts at midnight, the bread will be done before dawn.

As the women toil over the bread, music drifts through the evening air. The men are playing their handcrafted three-stringed lyres and four-stringed lutes in the coffeehouses. They, too, have traditions to follow.

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