Today we are headed to the largest and most famous of the Greek islands, Crete, for the recipe of its no less famous cracker bread called paximadi, made from barley flour.
The Cretan cuisine
With its 200-mile stretch and its 600,000 inhabitants, the fifth island in the Mediterranean is an enchanting place where history and culture can be seen at every corner. Located at the southernmost point of Europe, it is enough to be within reach of Africa. Indeed, Libya and Egypt are visible from its shores.
A trip to Crete is a dip in its blue waters, an immersion in its thousand-year history but also and especially the discovery of its irresistible culinary traditions. Yes, because Cretan cuisine is a pleasure for the taste buds. It is particularly tasty, so much so that it would be the basis of the famous Mediterranean diet, considered as one of the healthiest in the world.
Recent archaeological excavations and the study of written Minoan evidence have revealed new data on ancient Cretan dietary habits, demonstrating how much the current Cretan cuisine is very similar to the old one. Minoan civilization thrived on the islands of Crete and Santorini in southern Greece from 2700 to 1200 BC.
Olive oil was a key element of the Minoan diet, its economy and its everyday life. The discoveries of some ancient houses (1600 BC) in Rethymnon and Hamalevri, two cities of Crete, showed a large number of broken olive pits. Even today, the largest olive grove of the Mediterranean is located in Rethymno.
For the main religious festivals, the Cretan women knead and bake special breads: christopsoma or stavropsoma are the Christmas bread, avgokouloures or lambrokouloures are the Easter bread, and the eptazyma, a loaf raised 7 times, is reserved for the feast dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Other special breads, such as the lagana, are prepared for weddings, baptisms and other family events. Cretan tables generally feature a large variety of breads.
Paximadi, today’s famous bread, is present at almost every table and party.
How to make paximadi
Paximadi (plural paximadia) is a twice-baked bread, traditionally composed of 90% barley and 10% wheat. In Crete, it is often dried in the sun, becoming harder and more crisp.
Each paximadi slice has three times the nutritional value of a slice of ordinary white bread and it is indispensable to the Cretan diet.
Ntakos paximadi or dakos paximadi is a small, round paximadi. It should not be confused with the dish that has the same name, a Cretan salad made of tomatoes, feta cheese or mizithra, as well as fresh olive oil. Indeed, in addition to having a very pleasant taste and being excellent for the health, the paximadi admirably absorbs the aroma of the olive oil.
Paximadia do not contain preservatives or sugar. They are rich in gluten, vitamins, starch and fiber. They can be eaten in various recipes, in salads or as a side meal, instead of bread.
The paximadia, after the dough, the leaven and the first baking, undergo an additional heat treatment. This last step gives them greater friability, lower water content, higher fat intake, higher energy density and higher digestibility compared to traditional bread.
What is the origin of paximadi?
This barley bread has been known since ancient times as the staple food for the poor, but also the soldiers, shepherds and sailors who carried paximadia during their expeditions; they could thus preserve them for a long time without spoiling.
It was the Byzantines who gave it the name of paximadi in honor of their inventor, Pàxamos, a Greek author of the first century who has written a complete cookbook.
In Byzantine times, the name of Pàxamos was synonymous with high quality food. Over time, paximàdi became more and more popular. It has always been produced whenever living conditions were difficult, to the point of being associated with poverty, the rural population, shepherds and sailors.
During the Venetian rule, the furnaces of Crete produced enormous quantities of paximadia, destined for the fleet of the Serenissima. Cretan paximadi is defined as one of the first packaged food products.
In times of war, the army fed almost exclusively on paximadia. There was even a special group in the army that handled its transportation and distribution. One of the emperors of Byzantium, Justin, managed to survive thanks to paximadia, during a long march that led him from Illyria to Constantinople.
The paximadi intended for the Byzantine army was then called artos buccellatos, which is why the soldiers were called buccellari.
In large monasteries, monks usually ate fresh bread, while younger ones ate only paximadia as the main food. Also, no matter where eremitism developed, the only “accepted” foods were paximadi, fruits and roots. Thus, all the monasteries close to the hermitages thus assumed the task of supplying the hermits. It is therefore in these monasteries that the art of making paximadia has developed in a particular way. And even today, in the Cretan monasteries, paximadia of excellent quality are produced, the typical example being the monastery of Akrotiriani (Toplou) in Sitia.
It should be noted that paximadia produced today in Crete benefit from the PGI label, Protected Geographical Indication.
Paximadia is also the name of two small uninhabited islands, Megalo Paximadi and Mikro Paximadi, located off the Greek coast of Crete, in the Aegean Sea. The islet is administered from the regional unit of Gouves in Heraklion. They are on the Libyan Sea near the south coast of Crete. Because of their proximity to each other, the two islands appear as one when seen from a distance.
What are the benefits of barley?
If barley is known, it is above all for its key role in beer brewing. Indeed, it is the germinated barley that produces malt, the basic ingredient of beer, but also that of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.
Barley (hordeum vulgare or hordeum sativum), belonging to the family Gramineae, was reportedly domesticated in the Fertile Crescent and Central Asia around 8000 BC. It was used to make beer by the Egyptians, then the Greeks, the Gauls and the Celts.
Before the development of crushing techniques, Stone Age men spread barley grains on their food, and archaeological excavations in the Syrian region of Tel Mureybat uncovered uncultivated grains of this cereal dating from 8 000 BC and similar discoveries were made in the regions of Asia Minor, Israel, and Mesopotamia.
Uncertainties remain as to the original barley. China would probably be its place of origin. One of the earliest writings on cultivated barley dates back to Emperor Shen Nung, circa 2800 BC. JC, who had mentioned it as one of the five sacred plants, while some ceramics dating from 1520 BC show the veneration given to this cereal, depicting barley grains falling from the sky that flowed in a bowl. In fact, the Chinese farming community at the time considered barley a symbol of power.
Sumerians, Egyptians, and Babylonians used it as a means of subsistence and money; in ancient Greece, barley was highly appreciated, accompanying the development of the great Hellenic civilization for centuries.
The famous Hippocrates, considered as the father of modern medicine, fed his students a porridge made from barley, vegetables and cheese. Hippocrates used it as a panacea for all illnesses.
Barley, which provides 325 calories per 100g, contains a large amount of carbohydrates and is one of the cereals with the highest fiber content. It is packed with minerals, essential for healthy bones, especially for growing babies, and to fight osteoporosis damage for elderly pe.
It has strong anti-inflammatory and emollient properties facilitating the immune system thanks to its ability to fight against inflammation.
A decoction of barley, thanks to its emollient and refreshing properties, is used as a decongestant on red skin and its infusion is useful in case of inflammation of the digestive tract. Barley is also an excellent remineralizer to improve the balance of the nervous system and memory. Barley also strengthens hair and nails.
Differences between hulled barley and pearl barley
Barley can be consumed in a variety of forms, including hulled barley and pearl barley.
The difference between the two ? Hulled barley (also known as barley groats) is the whole grain form of barley, with only the outermost hull removed. Pearl barley (or pearled barley) is whole grain barley that has been processed to remove its fibrous outer hull and has been polished to remove some or all of the bran layer.
To prepare paximadia, use hulled barley flour. Some recipes replace the barley flour with chickpea flour.
I prepared these paximadia to make dakos but we also tasted them with taramosalata. Delicious !
- 16 oz. hulled barley flour
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- 1¼ cup warm water , approximately (at 85 F), including ½ cup to dilute the yeast with honey
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 3 tablespoons liquid honey
- ¼ cup red wine
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Mix the honey and ½ cup of water and mix in the active dry yeast and half of the all-purpose flour. Mix and set aside for 15 minutes or until it gets foamy.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, pour the remaining barley flour and all-purpose flour. Mix them up and dig a well in the center.
- In the well, pour the olive oil, wine and fermented yeast mixture.
- Knead at medium speed, while gradually adding the remaining water.
- Add the salt and knead at low speed for 10 minutes. The dough must then be stretchy and detach from the edges of the bowl. Add a little all-purpose flour or water, if necessary.
- Cover the dough with a cloth and let it rise for 1h30, in a warm place, away from drafts; it must double in size.
- Dust flour on a work surface. Add the dough and knead it by hand for 5 minutes.
- Place the dough in a previously greased bread pan of your choice or form flat rolls. Make a few incisions. Cover with a cloth and let it rise for 1 hour away from drafts.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Bake for 1 hour.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
- Slice the bread, or cut the rolls in half, and place the paximadia on a baking sheet.
- Bake them in an oven at 140 F for 6 hours to dry them out.
- Turn the slices over every 2 hours.
- Cool completely before storing in a glass jar in a cool, dry place.