Word from the East: Our Levantine Breads
Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Cyprus. We won’t pretend that one word, even one as weighty as ‘Levant’, can truly distill the history, cuisine, or cultural significance of this cradle of civilization. In a climate where much of the news we encounter about this region is of heart-rending political upheaval, we want to refocus on part of what keeps people ticking there, and the world over: the hospitality, togetherness and traditions exemplified in their food.
Drawn from the Italian ‘levante’, or rising (of the sun), the name Levant held the promise of an eastern dawn for traders in the Middle Ages. Much of our understanding of the region’s cuisine ends at hummus and fattoush, but the history of its foodways can be traced into antiquity. The historically porous borders of the region ran contiguous to ancient Mesopotamia, and consequently what we know as the ‘Fertile Crescent’. This area was among the world’s first to develop settled agriculture; and thus, among the first to bake bread. Civilizations rose and fell, from the Achaemenids to the Assyrians, and the Levantine lands eventually came under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire. Famously epicurean, the Ottoman dynasties made the best of the region’s natural bounty, lavish trade and diverse ethnicities in their royal kitchens.
As a happy result, numerous seminal ingredients unite the cuisines of these countries today: bottle-green olive oil, pomegranate molasses, tahini, citrus, brassicas, nightshades, phyllo pastry, exquisitely preserved vegetables, and some of the world’s finest nuts. From the Mediterranean through to Anatolia, a love of garlicky grilled meats and syrupy baklava endures, jostling for space at tables laden generously with fragrant pilafs and subtle tomato-okra stews. Street food like the crispy, meat-topped flatbread lahmacun is non-negotiable. So is strong mint tea. So is anisey arak.
BreadEx recognizes the syncretic cultural traditions that abound across the Levant, and this inspired us to experiment with the classic flavors that feature in a number of its cuisines – why not rose jam instead of rosewater, for instance? We’re also bringing you twists on some of our favorite recipes, like our beloved babka and focaccia, while introducing little-heard-of local ingredients. We are delighted to present our four Levantine offerings for the month of April:
This fluffy Cypriot loaf is a crowd-pleaser – and why not? A crisp exterior redolent with toasted nigella, aniseed, and sesame seeds reveals a spiced interior that is best friends with most Mediterranean stews. The spice profile varies between households, but tends to feature ground cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. Authentically spelled Çörek, the name of the bread is pronounced ‘cho-wreck’. Several strands of dough are gathered together and pressed into a seed mixture during the proofing stage. This gives the finished loaf a ridged appearance, like the bars of a xylophone.
Za’atar and Green Olive Focaccia
We’re proud of our tender-crisp Genoese focaccia recipe. Proud to the extent that Week 2 of every global bread subscription focuses on a focaccia reflecting the tastes of the region. For the Levant, we’ve chosen toppings inseparable from the culinary identity of these countries: savory green olives and za’atar. We drew inspiration from manakish, a popular Levantine breakfast bread often topped with a za’atar blend, cheese, or meat. Za’atar is the name of certain varieties of wild thyme and oregano native to the Middle East, but it also refers to the spice blend, which combines thyme, savory, hyssop, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. The herb itself is culturally celebrated for its medicinal qualities and ties to Abrahamic religion.
Bread forms the cornerstone of countless upcoming celebrations in the Levant. Orthodox Christians and Catholics currently observing Lent will soon celebrate Easter; their festivities coincide with Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting, which culminates in Eid-al-Fitr this May. Cypriot households churn out dozens of flaounes over the course of spring, eating them in lieu of bread on Easter Sunday. Our flaouna loaf is a riff on the traditional pastry, which boasts a shortcrust-like bun oozing with saline local cheeses. We’ve used traditional flaounes cheese, halloumi, and cheddar. Two spices we’ve included that account for the unique taste of a classic flaouna are mahlab and mastic. Mahlab is ground from the seeds of the St Lucy’s cherry, and imparts a heady, slightly bitter flavor similar to almond extract. Mastic is a tree resin that also acts as a thickener in Mediterranean cookery; it adds an herbal quality to the bake.
Rose and Pistachio Babka
The Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities of the Levant have given the world iconic dessert bakes, ranging from rugelach to the quintessential babka. Our babka shares tasting notes with basbousa, a rosy, syrupy semolina cake popular in the Middle East. We used a flakier, laminated dough popular in Israel over the brioche-style babka, which is similar to challah. A luscious pistachio frangipane oozes out of the twists, which envelop fragrant dried rose petals. If you can source booza, a delightfully stretchy mastic-infused ice cream, try some with this babka. This is the sweet end to our month of Levantine breads, and hopefully the sweet beginning of your deep dive into its cuisine.
We hope this month’s recipes pique your interest. For those looking to start a Levantine food journey at home, try wrapping your own vine leaf dolma, or cooking up a quick batch of sesame halva. For more insight into global cultures and gastronomy, join our mailing list.