Northern Cyprus is not the best country in the world for a gourmet to live. Imported foodstuffs are rare and expensive, locally produced fruit and vegetables are good but limited in variety and very seasonal.
Meat tends to be tasteless and tough – due, perhaps, to very limited grazing, less than considerate husbandry and hardly any maturation after slaughter; more than three days has to be requested.
However there are some gems and some surprises, and the bread here is some of the best I’ve tasted. How these standards are achieved, I do not know. Quality assurance is only thought about and technical knowledge is, to be kind, limited. There is not a huge variety available, but the most popular versions – from wrapped and sliced to those made from stone-ground wheat and with natural fermentation – can be found. And the local olive bread, made with both baking powder and yeast, and featuring whole black olives, is addictive but has a very short shelf life.
Tempo, a local supermarket, asked me to help them reduce the “crust” of wrapped and sliced box bread used for sandwiches, which was being baked for 30 minutes at 240ºC. Then the heat was turned off and the bread left in the oven for a further 30 minutes.
The Tempo Loaf
Bread flour - 30kg
Improver - 150g
Yeast - 150g
Sugar - 400g
Salt - 1kg
Unsalted margarine - 500g
Milk - 1kg
Water - 15kg
We successfully reduced the bake time to 28 minutes and the weight of the dough piece by 100g. It appears to have done the trick.
However, the real loss leader – the wrapped and sliced of Cyprus – is not wrapped and sliced at all. It is a most delightful bloomer-style loaf, featuring a thin crispy crust, a light tender crumb, which is amazingly white, with perfect cell structure and a wonderful real bread taste. The loaf is scaled at 350g and keeps well for 24 hours. It then makes great toast.
The loaves sell at a loss, for about 20p, but the local Cypriots buy them by the dozen, Covered with seeds, it can be sold at 50p. Here is the recipe (or as close as I can get to it).
The 20p Loaf
Bread flour (circa 14% protein) - 120kg
Salt- 1kg 600g
Soya based improver - 1kg 600g
Yeast - 5kg
Sugar - 800g
Water - (circa) 60 kg
The “on sack” declaration reads: Wheat flour, Saccharose, Emulsifier (E472) Soya flour, Oxidising agent (E 300), Enzymes (Fungal alfa amylases).
The nearest I could get to a flour specification is that it is 72% extraction and bakers use a blend of three, from different mills, as the variation is very great. The soft dough is mixed on a spiral machine for 15 minutes, divided into 350g pieces, moulded, and then given 40 minutes’ intermediate proof. It is then shaped. If the bread is to be seeded, it is done at this stage – all over with a delicious mix of white and black sesame and a little aniseed. Finally, the loaf is proved and baked.
There are about another five varieties, none of which have great sales but are all good to eat:German, a light rye; diet, with bran and wholemeal; wheat meal; corn bread, an American recipe; and olive bread, frequently made at home, some containing fresh herbs.
Most of the bread in northern Cyprus is made by small- to medium-sized bakeries or in-store by the supermarket groups. But there is a specialist baker making what is known as “village bread” (main picture). This comes in two varieties: a round and a baton shape, both 1.2kg in weight. The baton is covered with black and white sesame seeds and a little aniseed, while the dough itself is flavoured with ground cloves and allspice. Fermentation is done using the natural yeasts in the atmosphere. The flour used is stone-milled from wheat imported from the Ukraine. Water is from a nearby spring and the loaf is baked in old stone-floored ovens.
The “bakery” where it is made is, in fact, the kitchen of a once-popular hotel and restaurant in a remote beautiful valley near a village called Pinarbasi, some 10 miles from Kyrenia. The building is situated at the bottom of the valley alongside a fast-flowing mountain stream of sparkling clarity and cleanliness of taste. This is the water used for the bread.
The bakery has a small spiral mixer, a moulding machine and three stone-floored clay-built ovens. It is operated by three or four people, who turn out 1,000 loaves a day, seven days a week. There is a lot of mystique to the process, but nothing would persuade the workers nor the owner of the business to change one iota of recipe, ingredients or process.
The bread is made in three stages. The mixing machine is washed seven times, stone-ground flour is mixed with spring water to form a soft dough and this is divided into 2.5kg pieces, which are put into ceramic bowls. These are then placed in and out of the oven seven times (30 seconds each time) and are left in the bakery atmosphere for three days, open to natural yeasts in the air. Each of these can then be used to make 130kg of dough or they are frozen for use later.
The wheat itself is not easy to obtain: imports are strictly controlled by Turkey. But when the grain arrives, it is taken to a modern mill with a stone-milling facility, close to Famagusta. The bread is pretty solid but, freshly made, it is very tasty. After 12 hours it firms up and loses some of its appeal, but for the next five to six days, it changes little and, with good butter, it’s nutty, spicy, slightly sour in taste, and makes delicious and compulsive eating.
A bread ring called Simit is the last of the great products I discovered:
The Simit Bread Ring
Bread flour - 1kg
Sugar - 100g
Salt - 50g
Cinnamon - 20g
Yeast - 50g
Oil - 30g
Water - 400g
Black and white sesame seeds (enough to heavily coat the rings)
This is made into no-time dough, divided into 50g pieces, shaped into a twisted rope, heavily coated in seeds and formed into neat rings, proved and baked in a hot oven.