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There is no easy bread

Where is the traditional Belarusian karavai (round loaf) baked?
By Inna Gorbatenko

Stepanida Lupach does not recognise bought bread, but is really fond of bread baked by her own hand, based on a 200 year old recipe. The preparation process, handed down from generation to generation, has joined the list of intangible cultural and historical heritage of Belarus. It is said that a homemade loaf of bread baked by Stepanida, unlike bought bread, does not get stale for three weeks. The MT correspondent decided to take a trip to the village of Derkovshchina, in the Glubokoe District, to see how Stepanida bakes her unique bread.

A woman greets me in a smart apron and a bright scarf tied around her head. She is the master of friendly smiles — baking days are a real joy for her. She starts making the dough only when she is in a good mood, and when a loaf is in the oven, she does not allow quarrelling or even loud talking in the house, as she believes that swear words ‘annoy’ the bread, causing it to not turn out well. During our conversation, Stepanida Alexandrovna kneads the dough and explains her actions.

“Preparing a rye round loaf is one day of long activity, because everything is done by hand, without additives. Usually, I do not bake all the dough. I leave a small piece that I use as a starter for the next time. Today, however, I do not have any starter, so the new bread will be made using homemade kvass,” said the experienced baker, intriguing me.

She puts the flour into a pot, adds water from the well and mixes until all lumps are gone. Then, to sour the mixture, she puts it in a traditional Russian, preheated stove.

“Rye bread, like a good wine, requires persistence. Exposure, however, is lower than that of wine — about 12 hours in a special container made of pine with oak slats. When our flour cocktail changes colour, from brown to yellow, so the kvass is ready,” Stepanida explains her secrets.

The woman slowly adds a little more flour to the kvass and mixes. She entrusts me to salt it, while she herself adds sugar and sprinkles it with caraway seeds. She does not use exact measures, doing everything by sight. The kitchen is filled with a delicious smell, and I can barely hold back from trying a piece of dough. The smell is like yeast, but there is no yeast. The mixture should fall off and sour. We wait for a couple of hours and, after that, the ready-made dough is in our hands. It is flexible, does not stick to the palms, it is a pleasure to lay it out in the moulds, which are almost 60 years old.

“I inherited them from my mother,” says Stepanida Alexandrovna. “The dough will get ready in them and, as a result, will almost double.”

The hostess is busy near the stove again. “Only in this type of stove can one bake the age-old Belarusian bread. In order to make the bread, we must sustain a certain temperature, and it is much more difficult than with a modern, conventional household oven.”

The woman checks the temperature in a special way; by throwing a pinch of flour onto the hearthstone (the floor of the stove, where the wood is burned and irons are put), which immediately burned. Putting bread into the stove at this temperature is wrong because it is too hot. She moistens the hearthstone with water and once more threw on some flour which, this time, turns brown, For Stepanida, this is the optimum temperature and it’s time to put the bread inside.

Once the loaf is in the oven, Stepanida Alexandrovna puts a glass of clean water on the table and drops in a hazelnut sized ball of the same dough which immediately sinks to the bottom. “After a while it comes to the surface. This will be the signal for us that the loaf is ready,” said the hostess.

The ball slowly rises to the surface and my host pulls out one of the loaves and hits it with her knuckles. From the sound she determines that the bread is ready. However, to confirm this, she also pierces the loaf with a knife, the tip of which is clean when she removes it. The bread is ready.

“My bread does not go stale for a long time,” says the woman gently swinging the loaf from one hand to another. “Last year, pilgrims from our village went to Jerusalem and took my bread with them, because it stays fresh for three weeks. After serving it in the temple of the Holy Land, it was cut and given to parishioners.”

People in the village speak a lot about granny Stesha, as she is fondly known. At one time, she was the main organiser of the church construction. At that time she was 65 and had no thoughts of a quiet retirement. She collected money, negotiated with workers, bought icons and improved the area near the new church. Now, in this church, during Easter, parishioners share the bread, called Artos, baked specifically for the holiday by our heroine.

Earlier, Stepanida Alexandrovna frequently baked round loaves, but now, her strength is not that it was before. Of course, homemade bread tastes better because it is baked with love, and the price is lower. But it requires a lot of energy! Having seen the process with my own eyes, I can say that it can’t be called easy. As I left, Stepanida Alexandrovna gave me a loaf of the bread that she had made. It’s been two weeks since I met that marvellous woman, and the bread is still as fresh as when she pulled it from the stove.
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