Fırın (wood-oven bakeries), I learned today, are a relatively new phenomenon, at least in the southeastern Turkish city of Şanlıurfa (Urfa for short). "When I was a child almost every family had a small oven in their courtyard, or neighbors shared a single oven. At my house we had hot bread every single morning," an Urfali in his late forties told me.
Nowadays few Turks living in cities like Urfa make their own bread. Most neighborhoods boast at least one -- and often several -- firın that turn out fresh bread, be it pide, lavash, simit and/or ekmek (regular yeasted loaves) three times a day. Many of these firın also serve as community ovens where residents can roast a tray of lamb chops or a pan of eggplants, tomatoes and peppers for a minimal charge.
To me, it's a wonder that bakeries like this still exist -- and are so numerous -- in the "modern" world. I'd love to live in a neighborhood that featured such an amenity. Before our chat this morning it never occured to me that some Turks, like my new friend, might look back fondly on a time before neighborhood bakeries were part of the urban landscape.
I've always loved firın, and spending time in bakeries has always figured heavily in our travels in eastern Turkey. That's especially so since I began baking bread at home in Penang (partly in preparation to research breads for our cookbook, but also to feed a hunger for really good bread that had lain dormant for the many years we've lived in Asia but was recently reawakened on a trip back to the USA).
Now that I'm a newbie bread baker I experience the firın differently and, I think, more deeply. I breathe in the smell of flour and risen dough, I observe everything: techniques of shaping and how long bread rounds proof and the color of crust on finished loaves and the placement of fire in the wood oven. I hear the shoosh-shoosh of bread paddle on oven floor and the slap of dough on marble and the light pat-pat of fingers on pide-to-be. My questions to bakers are more pointed, more specific than they were just six months before. I've found most Turkish bread bakers to be welcoming and generous; that seems even more so now that we're speaking the same language.
Some firın I like more than others; I have loved quite a few in the 4 years that we've been traveling intensively out east. The one above, here in Şanlıurfa, is certainly one of the latter. It was 5 p.m. and the evening rush was on, and I've never seen so many bakers working a single line at once.
One boy grabbed chunks of dough from a trough, shaped them into rough ropes, squeezed off balls and dropped them into a scale. Another boy grabbed the balls and, working one in each hand, formed them into smooth rounds and placed them under a tarp to proof. A teenager next to him rolled the balls into ovals and tossed them to his right, where one of two men pressed his fingertips into the dough to ripple the surface of the pide, which they then tossed to a man working the bread peel. Finally, the hot pide were sold by the bakery's owner -- whole or sliced in half -- to customers through a window at its front.
Such rhythm, such cool composure under pressure. It was beautiful to watch.
The pide, sprinkled with sugar and sesame seeds, were delicious. Back at home, where this photograph will hang over my work table, I'll figure out a recipe.
Yep, we're still shilling for votes. We're finalists in the annual Saveur magazine Food Blog Awards. If you enjoy what we do, you can vote here until April 9. Thanks.