Remembrance Day: How Bread & Laughter Fought the War

10 Nov

My great uncle Achilleas was charming and handsome in his carefully slicked-back hair, pressed shirts, and modest but dapper suits.  He had the carefree and confident manner that came with being the youngest son in a family of four children:  his older brother was the serious one who shouldered the family’s responsibilities, and his two older sisters went off to care for families of their own.  That left him with plenty of freedom to get into all kinds of mischief, seeing as how he could never resist a good practical joke.

All that aside, Uncle Achilleas, like the Trojan War hero whose name he shared, was hobbled by a tragic vulnerability.  He was, as his reproving family liked to remind him, generous to a fault.  He never had a drachma, earned or borrowed, that he didn’t spend buying drinks for everyone at the neighborhood taverna, or that he didn’t quietly slip into a pocket emptier than his own.

And yet the weakness that eventually left him dependent on his older brother’s care also made him, again like his ancient name-sake, wonderfully brave.

It was the winter of 1941. The Germans had taken Athens earlier that spring, raising the Swastika over the Acropolis.    Snow uncharacteristically dusted the streets, and temperatures fell below freezing at night.

Most of the nation’s raw materials had been requisitioned, and the British blockade had left market shelves bare.  A loaf of bread, costing 10 drachmas before the war, went for millions on the black market.  Men, women and children foraged for wild greens on the hillsides and along railroad tracks, and many died in the streets, too weak to make it home.

My grandfather averted this fate.  He was a tailor, and he could always find a soldier who needed a shiny new button or a hem re-sewn on a dusty uniform in exchange for a loaf of bread or a tin of oil.  Not all of his neighbors were so fortunate, and Yiayia does not forget the eerie groans of the starving man who died slowly and loudly on the floor of his empty grocery shop on the corner of our street.

And so one slice of bread could have been for many struggling Athenians that winter a life-saving miracle.  Yet Achilleas, always on the alert for the chance to make mischief, managed to get his hands on not one loaf, or two, but on several glorious German truckfulls, their capacious beds piled high.

He did this by befriending a neighbor who was surviving the war driving supply trucks, delivering bread to the soldiers garrisoned in and around Syntagma Square.

Achilleas convinced the man to let him ride along, and then talked him into thinking it would be great fun to put one over on the occupying army.  Taking an unsanctioned right turn as they approached their destination, they soon bumped along the tangled streets in Athens’ once bustling market district.  When they arrived at the Plateia Theatrou, Achilleas flung loaves of bread to astonished Greeks who had been going weakly about their business, keeping their heads resignedly down.

All through that winter, Achilleas continued his mischief, giving away just enough loaves that their absence wouldn’t be noticed.  His long-suffering mother Eleftheria berated him. “They are going to hang you if they find out, you know!” she shouted.  “And then they’ll come for the rest of us!”

But Achilleas just laughed, and he never got caught.  And more than a few Greek men and women brought bread home to their families, staving off, for another night, the agonies of starvation.

And so on this Remembrance or Armistice Day, I will take time to remember my Uncle Achilleas, whose weakness was his strength, and who fought the war using the most powerful weapons he had at his disposal:  a courageous, impossible and finely-executed joke, and a generosity that even Hitler’s army couldn’t scare into submission.

My Uncle Achilleas with me in front of the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier on Syntagma Square.


Baking Bread, in Rememberance

For much of the war, it was impossible to find eggs, milk, or butter.  Even white flour was scarce.  Imagine the elation of women who, safe again in their peace-time kitchens, piled high on the table a mound of fine flour, made a well in the center, and heard, for the first time in years, the sound of an egg cracking when they hit it, almost regretfully, on the edge of a ceramic bowl.  Imagine the first tray of butter-cookies that they pulled from the oven, the first loaf of bread, plump and warm, that they could place on the table, urging their loved ones to eat, eat, eat, as much as they wanted.

In celebration of those moments, I will share one of my favorite bread recipes.  I am not a bread baker, and so I mix and knead my dough using a bread machine, and then shape it by hand (the bread machine loaves are simply not as beautiful as a loaf of bread, made for such an occasion, should be!).  I then finish it in the oven.

The recipe is for a simple and satisfying European peasant bread.  I adapted it from my favorite bread machine cookbook:  The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger, who also wrote the James Beard Award winning book, The Bread Bible.  The recipe calls for olive oil, and the flavor of the bread will depend on the flavor of the oil you choose.  For details, see p. 199 of the Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook.

Peasant Bread

For a 1-1/2 Pound Loaf (directions for a 2–pound loaf given in parentheses)

1-1/8 cups water (1-1/2 cups water)

2 Tablespoons olive oil (3 Tablespoons olive oil)

3-1/4 cups bread flour (4-1/4 cups bread flour)

2 teaspoons gluten (1 Tablespoon gluten)

2 teaspoons sugar (1 Tablespoon sugar)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt (2 teaspoons salt)

2 teaspoons SAF yeast or 2-1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast (2-1/2 teaspoons SAF yeast or 1 Tablespoon bread machine yeast)

Place all the ingredients in the pan according to the order in the manufacturer’s instructions.

Set the machine on the Dough cycle.

Shaping the Loaves

When the machine beeps, take the dough out of the pan and shape it. Hensperger shows you several ways to shape traditional country breads – my favorite is the small Boule, which lets me make two loaves, enjoying one right away and storing one in the freezer for another night.  To make two of these loaves from one batch of dough:

Divide the dough into two equal portions.

Take one portion and pull up the sides and knead them into the center of the loaf, creating a tight, round ball.

Place the ball of dough seam side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, or, if you have one, on a baking stone, and repeat with the second portion.

Let the dough balls rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

When ready, gently brush the top of the loaf with a glaze made by beating together 1 egg white and 1 Tablespoon water until frothy.

Using a sharp knife, slash an “X” on top of each loaf, going no deeper than ¼ inch.

Baking the Bread 

About 20 minutes before you are ready to bake your loaves, pre-heat your oven to 425*F.

Bake your bread for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

Remove the loaves from the pan and place on a cooling rack.

A War Lesson Learned: Waste Not, Want Not, or how to store your home-made bread

You can store a loaf by letting it cool completely, placing it in a freezer bag, and saving it for another day.  When you are ready to eat it, take it out of the freezer.  If you have time, let it thaw for a few hours in the refrigerator, and then finish thawing it on the counter. This will help keep your bread from getting a bit soggy.  When it has thawed completely, place it in a 300 degree oven for about 10 minutes.

If you’re like me and never remember to take the bread out of the freezer in time to thaw it slowly, just remove the loaf from the freezer and freezer bag, wrap it up in foil, and heat it up in a 300 degree oven for 20 minutes or so.  It will still be delicious.




To read more about daily life in Greece during the war, turn to historian Mark Mazower’s Inside Hitler’s Greece.  (Click here for an excerpt); or to Violetta Hionidou’s study Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1942.


4 Responses to “Remembrance Day: How Bread & Laughter Fought the War”

  1. Urania Mylonas November 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    Such in incredibly beautiful and moving story! Thank you!

    • KuZina November 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

      Thank you, Urania! It’s good to remember, isn’t it?

  2. Markella November 30, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Your uncle’s mischief and kind heartedness brought tears to my eyes. My father was much the same – his own kind heartedness and generosity was his downfall.

    Your writing really evokes the feeling of Greece during those difficult times. Times we were forntunate enough never to experience. But from those times came such amazing dishes as Xorta and Prasso-riso. A testament to the undying spirit of the Greeks.

    • KuZina November 30, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

      Thank you for your message. I don’t think we value kind heartedness and generosity enough. And I hadn’t made the connection between Xorta and Prasso-riso, but of course it’s there. Were these foods that your grandparents turned to?

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