Author: Лена Кирилова

On the road of the bread

Labor habits and traditional food

With its great combination of beautiful scenery and unique cultural heritage Dobrogea lures everyone to discover the beauty and hospitality of the vast plain. If one manages to "taste" the wonderful places in which he gets into, if one tries the local specialties and a piece of white, aromatic bread, he will perceive the unique "scent" of the colourful and varied Dobrogea. Because food is not only a vital necessity, but also a sacred ritual, a sign of particular historical development and worldview, an ethnic and cultural marker, which, along with the holidays and the traditional costumes, sets the specificity of the various ethnographic and ethnic groups of the population. Although it has its place in the traditional Bulgarian cuisine, the Dobrogean cuisine has its own distinct flavor that only the "hungry" for knowledge can feel.

If one says golden Dobrogea, the first thought is of the wheat and bread. Above all stands "our daily bread" and there is no other thing but the bread that sums up all the concepts of the Dobrogean for worthy, happy days. The bread is not only a daily food necessity, but also a sacred vow for health and well-being, a need for mystery and rituals, poetry and beauty. The owner swears in the bread, he crosses himself on it and reverently kisses it, the bread can be touched only with clean hands and thoughts and no bad words can be uttered at the table. "You are not bigger than the bread ..." - used to say the old people. People believe that the bread has a soul, and that is why it is never cut but broken into pieces. And in the wise, benevolent world of the Dobrogean, there is a transgression that is forgiven the most difficult - the sin committed before bread. The legend has it that in the blessed, golden time when God was still walking on the earth, the wheat had classes from the root to the top, and the grain was as large as an egg. People did not appreciate that richness and sinned, God got angry and punished them - their whole life became a constant struggle for the daily bread. And since then, for centuries on, the bread brings joy and grief, severe fate and hope. And showing disrespect to his cult is regarded as violating the foundations of life. Because for the Bulgarian the bread is the life itself ...

From the sowing to the harvest, between the weekday and the weekend – there is an endless, colourful circle in the center of which stands the love of Dobrogean towards the land and the bread.

Sowing as the beginning of the entire agricultural cycle is accompanied by a performance of a number of rituals and strict adherence to certain prohibitions. In the seed prepared for the first day, the farmer puts some wheat from last year's sheaf of wheat (called "beard"), he adds objects and plants which, according to folk beliefs, have stimulating and protective effect – a comb, a red thread, silver coins, shells of red Easter eggs, onion, garlic, apples, walnuts, etc.. Protecting practice is throwing embers and ashes around the cart with the seed. Early in the morning the bride, dressed in festive clothes, wearing a green flower behind her ear, bakes a round bread and prepares a stewed chicken for the sower and the horns of the oxen are decorated with small round bagels. When he arrives at the field, the farmer, facing east towards the rising sun, rises the bread high above his head – so that the wheat rises high, and then he rolls the round bread in the first furrow and then expressing his gratitude and making a prayer to God and to Mother Earth he eats a piece of bread and the other half he buries in the field. The throwing of the first handfuls of seed is accompanied by blessings – for the fields to be more fertile and for the people to have enough food and to enjoy their work ... If some seed remains, it is scattered around and it should not be returned home – so that prosperity is not "returned". According to the tradition, the gates of the house remain open until the return of the owner. In the evening the whole family greets him solemnly and they gather around the laden table where the place of honor is reserved for the sower.

The most important and awaited moment for the farmer is the harvest. On a good day, usually Monday, first starts the harvest the one that is deft and works with ease. "God is ahead, and we follow him" – bless the reapers and throw two or three sheaves ahead of them; they also gird themselves with belts of braided ears of wheat and a special grass they believe will help them work with ease ("sporniche") so that they do not suffer from backache and their work goes smoothly . Ubiquitous is the ritual of "raising the first sheaf." "This year I can hardly lift you up, but next year I wish I won't be able to lift you at all" – says the farmer and raises the tied with a red thread bundle. The finding of the so called "king of the field" /a forked sheaf of wheat/ is usually regarded as a sign of a rich harvest. Known in all villages is the custom of "braiding a beard", which marks the end of harvest. The farmers choose nice, big sheaves of wheat, growing close to each other, and dig around them with their sickles and swaphooks, then a young, skillful woman braids the sheaves as she interweaves in the braid a red and white thread, a clove of garlic, and a silver coin. Then, when the "beard" is ready, the farmers wash their hands over it and throw some bread crumbs and cheese on it. According to local ritual practices the "beard" is either cut and placed in the home – next to the fireplace, the icon-stand, or in the barn, or it is left in the field as the sheaves are bent to the ground. And when time for sowing comes again, several sheaves of the "beard" are crumbled and put in the seed. Different rituals are performed around it – the reapers roll, so that the bundles "roll" the next year, they dance the traditional ring dance – horo and at the end they bless the field to be fertile and facing east, towards the sun, they throw their sickles over their shoulders. Depending on how the sickles fall and where the sharp tips point, the farmers make predictions for health and marriage. "Come on, field, with God's help, next year we’ll have more beards, and bigger families" – bless the reapers and say goodbye to the field. The transportation of the bundles is a feast for the farmer. Each farmer decorates the oxen and the cart with greenery and bunches of flowers and the girls, dressed in their best attire, board the carts so that the entire village sees them. The hostess greets the reapers at home with a copper bowl full of water, decorated with a red thread and geranium – so that the wheat "flows like water" and there is health and fertility in the home.
Again on a nice day – Monday or Wednesday, the threshing begins. Wheat from the first and the last threshing-floor is not lended – so that the prosperity is not "given away". Upon completion of the work a sacrificial cock is butchered. The first bread baked with the new flour is connected with two key practices: a small round bread is thrown in water – so that there is enough moisture for the crops and the wheat flows like water, and bread is also given to relatives and neighbours – for good health and prosperity.

Associated with ancient concepts and beliefs, the work habits and rituals have a common signification – to provide rich harvest, to thank the land that is so generous to the people, to give hope that the work of the farmers will be rewarded again with the richest, most valuable and magical gift – the Bread. 

Bread accompanies the lives of people from their first to their last earthly hour. The birth of a child is welcomed with bread, bread accompanies the weekdays and the holidays of man, it is part of the necessary things prepared for that last journey, inevitable for everyone ...
The presence of bread in all traditions is universal. Without bread the table is "empty" and so is the year. Bread is the most holy sacrifice which sums together ancient concepts and beliefs, symbolism and aesthetics, mystery and beauty. Its preparation is the first and most important ritual that often marks the beginning of each holiday, creates the specific mood and atmosphere for every custom and gives a unique look to the festive table. This is why the Dobrogean woman considers kneading bread as a sacred ritual. She always puts on a new, festive attire and a flower behind her ear. Ritual breads are made from the best wheat. The flour is sifted in three sieves and is kneaded with special "silent, flowery" water possessing magical power /brought home in complete silence with flowers and herbs put into it / and heated on "live" fire. With the skill of a master the hostess prepares the dough and shapes each ritual bread with specific decoration. With the inherited longstanding legacy symbols, signs and ornaments, she expresses her hopes and believes that her anticipation for health, luck and prosperity will come true. So, in the same way as she skillfully weaves the colourful patterns, the bride shapes the bread in a unique way, forming compositions of flowers, suns, birds. Each symbol is a prayer expressed through the patterns, which developed into an art. Each image has its own language – seemingly incomprehensible, but if one manages to understand it, they will touch the vast world of ancient notions, and the different multilayer message that each holiday brings ...
Extremely diverse in their form, decoration and names are the various forms of the Christmas bread. It is a symbol of health and life, fertility and abundance, the beginning of the new solar year. According to its function in the custom it can be divided into three groups. The bread devoted to the holiday itself – Christmas Eve and Christmas is called "God's round bread", "bogovitsa" in Bulgarian. It usually has a circular form – the symbol of the sun, and of a fenced and protected, inaccessible to evil forces mundane world, and usually decorated with the sign of the cross. Richly decorated is the bread dedicated to the home and the farm. Various ornaments and images, modeled from pieces of dough, symbolize the labor of the farmer, the hope for fertility and happy days and they determine the variety of names of the bread – "house", "field", "threshing-floor", "plow", "pen", "vineyard" and others. Wreaths of evergreens, popcorn strung on red thread, walnuts, dried fruit, or a sprig of boxshrub or basil adorn the bagel for the owner. With particular care are prepared the maiden bagels with which each girl meets and presents her beloved one from the group of Koledari, thus attesting her love and skills. When they finish with the tour of the village the Koledari arrange the "rounded" bagels, bid for them, each one trying to buy the bread of his beloved one. And then the whole village learns who is the most skillful girl that crafted the most beautiful Christmas gift.

With a great variety of decorations and names are characterised the Easter ritual breads. They are a symbol of the rebirth of nature, of abundance and renewal of the home and its prosperity, they represent a kind of message that people send for a rich harvest and hope that the earth will once again grant them its generosity. Unlike the Christmas bagels, in the kneading of the Easter ones the unmarried girls make way for the married women – mostly young brides.
Traditionally, the bread is made from pure wheat flour, always on Saturday, the shape is large, round, oblong, or in the form of a cross, made of two or more pieces of dough twisted in different ways. Bagels are prepared for the godfather, the bride's maid and for the table. The godparents and the parents are presented with the so called "braided" bread – a symbol of love and harmony in the home. Typical and obligatory decorations are red eggs – a universal symbol of the sun and the productivity. Usually one egg is placed in the middle of the bagel for the house or a number of eggs corresponding to the number of the family members. The bread is placed in the middle of the Easter table, around which the whole family sits together, regardless of their age, sex or social status. Again it is the bread that unites children and adults, men and women, young and old ...
Everyone gets together at the great table prepared for the whole village on St. George's Day, which is always done in the open, 'on the grass'. Again the place of honor is reserved for the ritual bread. The young bride in the home kneads the dough in a well washed and scraped with a silver coin or silver bracelet kneading-trough with freshly brought water, in which she puts greenery, herbs, flowers and small branches of a fruit tree. In order for the women to be beautiful and to have white skin, they wash their faces with the "flowery" water and then pour it out near the barn or under a fruit tree – so that the land is fertile and the barns to be full of wheat. The dough is covered with a woman's garment – so that more female and colourful lambs are born. The bread baked for St George's holiday is "coloured", "decorated" with a lamb knuckle, and their decoration is an integral part of the rich festive rituals related to the beginning of the agricultural year and the Christian Saint George – the patron saint of shepherds and flocks. "Sheep-pen", "threshing-floor", "pen" are just some of the names of the loaves, which feature typical holiday elements crafted from dough - lambs, sheep, shepherd's crooks and others. For distribution in honour of the holiday special small breads are kneaded – small bagels ("podavki" in Bulgarian), decorated with balls of dough.
The preparations for the most important and awaited event in everyone's life – the wedding begin with the ritual kneading of bread. The beginning of the wedding customs mark the so called "sowing" accompanied by special ritual songs and dances performed at the home of the bride and the groom. The ritual "seeding" of the two young people, their "kneading" and their union in one inseparable entity symbolizes the new beginning of their common life as a family. In order to "leaven" their life to be happy and sweet, long and abundant, the leaven for the bagels is collected from three houses in the village, full of happiness and children, the kneading-trough is scraped with a gold coin and the round bread is coated with honey. The honey bread is left at a table in the yard together with a glass of wine, in which is placed the ring of the groom.

After singing and dancing round the table, the young man drinks the wine and puts on the ring, and each guest receives a piece of the sweet bread. After the honey bread, next are the other wedding breads. The sculpted from dough patterns on them – suns, birds, wreaths, flowers, interlaced designs and many more ornaments, symbols of prosperity and love, of harmony and happiness are a real plastic art. Binding element are the branches of evergreen trees, a bunch of geranium and an apple as symbols of love and fertility. The message of the bride's and the groom's bread is different, it is expressed by specific decoration. The girl will leave her father's house, that is why the birds on her round bread "point outwards". The boy's birds are facing inwards – so that the wealth is multiplied and it remains in the house. The mother-in-law will greet the newlyweds in their new home with bread. And on the first day after the wedding comes the first great trial for the bride – the kneading of the "bride's bread" – a ritual that is also a practical examination of the most important skill of the Dobrogean woman – the preparation of the bread for the family. The mother-in-law takes the bride to the kneading-trough, she "gives" them to her with the blessings: to have them always full – at weddings, christenings and at village holidays ...
Idolized and turned into art and an original plastic expression of a desired reality, the bread is present at all family and calendar holidays. But bread is also an integral part of the everyday life of Dobrogean, it is his traditional, often the only, daily food. "Come and eat bread" – says the hostess when inviting her little children at the table. "If there is bread, you will not be hungry" – says the popular wise saying.
The highest quality varieties of wheat are grown in Dobrogea and bread is kneaded from white flour. Not surprisingly foreign travellers passing through our land note with admiration and wonder how white, fragrant and tasty the bread of the Dobrogean people is. Two or three times a week the hostess kneads in the kneading-trough /a wooden container/ bread with leaven, she places it to rise in special wooden moulds for baking bread /called "panakodi" in Bulg./ and she bakes it in the oven in shallow clay pots for baking bread / called "podnitsi" in Bulg. /. Towards the beginning of the twentieth century the leaven is replaced by yeast made from hops, unpeeled potatoes, wheat and corn. Bread dough stirred in water is usually used for preparing the soup "taran", and the so called "cut soup" is prepared from thin, cut in strips sheets of pastry. Common breakfast meal is the"trienitsa" – hard-kneaded dough made from flour and salt water, broken into large crumbs. Widespread in Dobrogea is the "kavarma" – pastry made from rolled out, sprinkled with butter and cheese sheets, covered with milk and eggs. The filling of the traditional pasta dishes such as the "cabbage cake" /"zelnik"/, the "dock cake" /"lapadnik"/, or the "pumpkin cake" /"tikvenik"/ defines the name of the meal. Different are the typical for the region of Kotel "banitsi" /pastry/. Coked rice, crumbled cheese and fat are added in the filling of the Kotel pastry, and the edges of the pastry sheets of the "saraliya"are folded or rolled towards the the middle. Another type of pastry dish called "pirog" is made of dough with eggs, milk and sugar, filled with apples and cinnamon, raisins, grapes, plums, pears. The "gyuzlemi" are made from thinly rolled pastry sheets with cheese, folded and baked on a hot plate. The treacle /or "rachel" in Bulg./ is made from thick juice of boiled sugar beet and pumpkin. Widespread among the migrants from North Dobrogea are the foods prepared of corn flour – hominy. The people who lived in Russia often prepared pies called "boiled" – pastry stuffed with cheese and eggs, cooked in boiling water.
Significant place in the traditional food occupy the dairy products - sheep and cow milk or yoghurt in a pot. The sheep yoghurt prepared by the Kotel shepherds curdled into barrels and sealed with tallow was so thick that one could cut it with a knife. Not surprisingly travellers mention that at markets one could buy milk in bags offered with a clove of garlic. The "turbid drink" released after the churning of the butter out of the milk is drunk chilled and is a favorite drink in hot summer days. Often consumed is the porridge with cheese, butter and milk, prepared from flour and water, with added cheese, milk and butter. The cheese is usually stored for a long time in a special bag made of lambskin – "tulum". Characteristic of the population that lived in Russia, is the use of cream.

The main everyday food was vegetarian – vegetables and fruits, often wild, generously given by nature. People often prepared soup of beans, potatoes, leeks, dock, nettles, beans with fried onion, and in winter, they often ate pickled wild pears and apples, green tomatoes, garlic, water melons. The conservation of cabbage is another traditional practice. During lent people often consumed "cabbage soup" – cabbage juice with chopped leeks, roasted hot pepper and oil. Meat food is characterized by greater variety, but it is consumed only at holidays – boiled cock or turkey cooked with cabbage on St. Basil's Day, boiled chicken on the Sunday before Lent and at Easter, roasted lamb on St. George's Day, sheep meat stew at village holidays. During the winter months present at the table was the pork meat. From the pig butchered for Christmas people prepared black pudding called "grandmother," "grandfather" – from chopped meat, liver, rice, spices; "dzhumerki" – fried pieces of fat; jellied pig's trotters, "presnina" – finely chopped meat with chilies and spices, cooked on a slow fire. Characteristic of Dobrogean cuisine are the chicken stews cooked with tomatoes, onions, grits, garlic, "turkey stew" with okra and prunes. Fish is relatively limited food, consumed mainly by people along the Danube river. It is present at the table as ritual food at Annunciation and St Nicholas Day when "fish dish" is prepared from carp with rice and groats.

In each dish the Dobrogean woman puts certain spices sown in the garden or picked in the meadows – parsley, celery, dill, mint, savory, lovage, thyme, oregano. At calendar or family holidays strictly defined type of ritual food is prepared. By performing a series of rituals and ceremonial actions before and during eating, people expressed their hopes and wishes for health and prosperity throughout the year.
Special attention is given to the ritual breads. The fasting days of the week – Wednesday and Friday, are strictly observed as well as all set by the church calendar fasts – Christmas, Easter, St. Peter's Day, Virgin Mary’s Day.

In joy and sorrow, on a weekday and on holiday, the once numerous offspring got together at the round table. The table is where the order established from centuries is most vividly expressed. Because food does not only satisfy people's basic needs, but also the need for mystery and rituals, it is an expression of love, harmony and hospitality. It is an emanation of the relationship of the Dobrogean with the land that gives him its generosity. And again people get together round the table at the common village holidays, and it is still there, as the expert on Bulgarian national psychology Ivan Hadzhiyski writes: "that all disputes should be settled, the angry ones should reconcile, and the souls of all the villagers merge into one soul" where ... every guest is welcome – in good times and in bad. At the table the Dobrogean will always raise the bread above his head, he will kiss it reverently, he will bless the labor and the land and will invite God and the saints. Isn't this the greatest tribute to this divine gift – the Bread ...

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