If you’ve been following this blog for the past few months, then you’ll know that I spent my summer interning with the Bread Houses Network in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. It was an incredible experience full of love and carbs, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to share some of it here with you.
First things first- what exactly is the Bread Houses Network? It’s an international non-profit organization that is based on the simple concept of using bread as a way of connecting communities and bridging gaps between people regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or handicaps. Founded in 2009 as part of the International Council for Community Cultural Centers, BHN came about when its founder, Dr. Nadezhda Savova, was visiting Bethlehem and learned that the name of this famous city actually means “House of Bread”. Inspired by this terminology, Nadezhda began to realize that bread is a common cultural element all around the world, a phenomenon that she saw first hand when she visited over 70 different countries while achieving her PHD in Anthropology from Princeton. When she later returned to her native Bulgaria, she began the difficult task of converting her grandmother’s former home, a structure that was falling down and didn’t even have a roof, into the world’s first ever Bread House.
The story of this Bread House and its creation is phenomenal. Crafted only be volunteers, it was rebuilt during a long cold winter in freezing temperatures. In fact, on the very day the roof was completed, after the final hammer had been swung, it started to snow for the first time. Then, one day while they were working, a man happened to walk by. When they told him their plans for a bread house, he commented that they didn’t have a traditional wood fire oven. That man then surprised them all by saying that he was a world renowned oven builder, and that he would come back the next day and build them one for free. And that, friends, is the very same oven that I had the privilege of baking in throughout the summer.
The Bread House in Gabrovo operates very simply. It is a place for community members, tourists, students, orphans, friends, strangers, the disabled and more to all come together and make bread. There are countless metaphors and symbols to be found in this process, and I encourage you to explore the website linked above to learn more about them. Down the street from the Bread House is a social enterprise bakery, in which traditional artisan sourdough bread is baked everyday and sold in order to preserve the country’s bread making traditions and earn money to sustain the organization. Again, I highly recommend checking out the social enterprise section on the website, because it’s really an amazing project.
While in Bulgaria, I had the opportunity to meet some of the kindest, most welcoming people around. I interacted through the beautiful process of sharing bread, and even though I hardly spoke a word of Bulgarian, on numerous occasions I found myself laughing along with all of my fellow bread makers. While I could obviously go on for hours about this incredible experience, I’ll stop myself here to spare you the memoir that would inevitably follow if I continued. But if you have any questions AT ALL, including how to become involved with this organization yourself, please let me know! I would be oh so happy to answer them, and this organization is in dire need of any help that you are willing to give.
Finally, I will leave you with the incredibly simple bread recipe we use in our workshops. It’s so easy, in fact, that we don’t even have specific measurements when we make it, and kids make it all the time! And the aroma of fresh bread wafting through your house? Heavenly.
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The Bread Houses Network Bread
Makes two loaves
Note: Unlike most bread recipes, this one isn’t exact; in fact, we never used measurements during workshops. What I have provided is about as close to a recipe as can be written. As for the spoonfuls, a regular dinner spoon is about what you’re going for, and you want the water to be warm, not hot. And relax! This bread is pretty much impossible to mess up.
1 kilo all purpose flour (approx. 8 cups)
2 packages yeast (approx. 4 1/2 teaspoons)
1 spoonful sugar
1 1/2 – 2 spoonfuls salt
Preheat oven to 4ooF/200C. Place the flour in a large bowl and create a well in the center. Add the yeast and the sugar into the center of the well, then sprinkle the salt around the outside of the ring, up on the ridges. Pour the warm water into the well until it comes about halfway up the sides. Let sit for around ten minutes until the yeast is bubbling and the water is frothy.
Using your hands, begin to combine the mixture into a dough, starting from the inside and gradually adding more flour from the outside. Keep adding more water as the mixture becomes too dry, and continue to mix by hand until it comes together in a dough. If the dough becomes too wet, simply add more flour. Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 5-10 minutes (this will take some arm strength!). If you have a friend, dividing it up to knead makes the work a lot easier.
Let dough rest for at least 10 minutes, but you can also leave it for up to 2 hours. Once you are ready to bake, divide it into two round loaves* and place on a baking sheet. Lower the oven temperature to 350F/180C and bake the loaves for 10-15 minutes, until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped from the bottom.
*During workshops, we would divide the dough between participants and let them make shapes and figures out of it that would be baked into bread. This exercise is particularly great for children, but it’s also fun for adults too! When I’m home, I also like to make rolls out of the dough by rolling it into balls and placing them in a casserole dish to bake. You can use this dough to make any sort of bread or forms you like!