We seek Greek secret of the staff of life

The best bread I ever tasted was on Naxos, a Greek island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Just married in 1970, my husband, Roger, and I traveled for a year before settling down. We landed in Greece, rented a room for $12 a month, and stayed for four months.

Our 14-by-14-foot room boasted a small bed, a lumpy couch, a big table with a hotplate, two bright blue chairs, and a cupboard. Our daily half-liter of milk, delivered straight from the cow by a milkman we never saw, arrived on our garden table long before we awakened.

While I boiled the raw milk and cut up oranges as large as grapefruits for our breakfast, Rog went jogging. He ran up the town's one road, which led into low hills before dwindling to a goat path. Jogging wasn't common then, so villagers stopped to watch the crazy American running up the road, only to see him run back 10 minutes later, having accomplished nothing.

Along the waterfront, men sat in the cafe, waiting for my husband to come panting around the corner. They pointed and smacked their thighs in amusement as Rog galloped past and disappeared into the bakery. Minutes later, he emerged with a loaf of bread so hot it could burn his fingers. The Naxos men waved and cheered as Rog juggled the loaf from hand to hand while he trotted up the alley and turned into the overgrown courtyard we shared with five other families and 20 feral cats.

Rog plopped the bread onto the table and sluiced himself with cold water while I poured the milk into tall glasses and added a spoonful of sugar to each. We tore hunks of bread from the loaf and slathered on vutero-meli, a creamy mixture of butter and honey. We purred as we sat down to eat, the aroma of the hot bread mingling with the dark honey's fragrance.

It was a one-kilo loaf. At the end of breakfast, only crumbs remained for our neighbor's chickens. Every morning for the four months we lived there, we ate a pound of bread apiece. It was that good.

As the time to leave approached, we knew we'd miss our neighbors, the fried potatoes at our favorite taverna, the sound and smell of the sea, the sun on the whitewashed houses. And the bread.

"Let's see if they'll give us the recipe," I suggested.

With meager Greek and ample sign language, we asked Yankos, the baker, for his secret. He stared, frowned, gave a Mediterranean shrug, and invited us to come watch the next morning.

"What time?" I asked.

"Five o'clock," he said. That's what I'd been afraid he'd say.

But at 5 the next morning, there we were. The baker's three young sons could hardly contain their hilarity as they looked at Rog and me standing in the dark, warm, yeasty-smelling back room. I held a tiny notebook and pen.

Yankos and his boys donned clean aprons and tied bandannas around their heads. Then they washed their hands and arms, lathering and rinsing two-thirds of the way to their shoulders. At that point, I began suspecting something.

The baker dragged a cloth sack the size of a sleeping bag to the edge of an enormous tub, a tub so large that a VW Beetle would have disappeared inside it. One boy stabbed the side of the sack with a knife and ripped it up the middle.

He and his father lifted the sack and dumped about 200 pounds of flour into the tub. Clouds of flour filled the room. I watched in amazement as another boy dragged a second sack to the tub and repeated the performance.

The baker pointed to the empty sacks, saying, "Two hundred kilos flour. More later."

Four hundred-plus pounds of flour? More later? I began to see the bigger picture, but I flipped open my notebook and wrote "400 lbs. of fl."

Yankos held up something the size of a New York City phone book, tore it open, and crumbled yeast into the tub. Then he ripped the stitching from a toaster-size bag of salt and poured it atop the yeast.

"How much, how much?" I asked, feeling ridiculous.

By this time, Yankos's black mustache had turned mostly white. He lifted a floury hand to hide his grin and said, "Four kilos each, yeast, salt." I wrote it down.

Then the boy with the biggest biceps walked to a faucet on the wall, and for the first time I noticed a hose coiled on the floor. Another boy held the end of the hose while his brother turned on the water. Yankos tested the temperature, nodded, and warm water flowed into the tub.

He stared at the mixture, and when he judged the amount of water to be just right, he held up his hand. The faucet squeaked, and the water stopped.

I put my notebook away.

Looking at me with a question in his eyes, the baker made writing motions on his palm. I smiled and shrugged. They all looked down into the tub, but I saw their shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

Rog and I watched as the four of them leaned over the edge of the tub, plunged their hands intp the mixture, and began stirring, mixing, turning, and finally kneading. They opened a third sack of flour. Before long, the eldest son was using a shovel to add another 30 or 40 pounds of flour to the dough.

"How long?" I asked after 10 minutes, watching sweat appear on their shoulders.

"Miso hora," the baker answered. Half an hour. For at least 30 minutes every morning, these guys wrestled with maybe 500 pounds of flour and who knew how much water. And water is a pint a pound. Now I understood those muscles.

I left Naxos without a recipe for Greek bread, but with a much better understanding of the art of breadmaking. Clearly, it was not an exact science. I began to suspect that much depends on the flour, the water, the type of oven, the Mediterranean air, and the spirit of the village baker.

Most of all, that morning in the bakery freed me from yeast phobia. If Yankos and his sons could make bread fit for the gods with a hose and a shovel, then bread dough must have a very forgiving nature.

I've made bread hundreds of times since . Sometimes I add a little sugar, sometimes butter, maybe milk or an egg, even leftover cooked cereal or vegetables. But when I've got a yen to return to the basics, I resort to the bread of Naxos.

Two cups of warm water, six cups of flour, one tablespoon each of yeast and salt. It doesn't take much to create a little piece of heaven on earth.

When my family comes home, the house smells like the Naxos bakery, and Rog's eyes go soft. The children nod knowingly. "Greek bread? Yum! What's that you always say, Mom?"

" 'Horea psomi.' Beautiful bread, the staff of life..."

"... From the cradle of civilization," Rog finishes.

As I look at him across the heads of our three children, the years melt away and I'm 25 again, living with my new husband on a Greek island. This is as good as it gets, I think.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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