During a trip to the Pelion Peninsula in Greece earlier this summer, Rog and I were lucky enough to have this fantastic bakery as our local. As is my habit when on holiday these days, I dived straight in and sought out the baker. It wasn't hard in the Lafkos bakery as Ioannis Drositis, owner and baker, is there most of the time that the bakery is open. Also, with the oven situated in the shop itself, when he is baking, you get to see everything which is fantastic.
Ioannis has baked here since he was 8 years old as it was his father's business before him. His mother still helps him making the delicious feta and spinach pies that are so much a part of Greek baked cuisine. His father is also still very much involved, helping stack wood for the wood-fired oven and being on hand to help on high days and holidays with the baking.
This is the fire box for the oven - said to have come from one of the steam locomotives that work on the Pelion railway from Volos to Mileai. The railway was originally going to reach as far down the peninsula as Lafkos but this plan never came to be. The oven is fired with olive wood from tree trimmings collected during the annual pruning of the olive trees. Ioannis explained that though the olive harvest isn't a guaranteed annual thing - sometimes there is no harvest for a couple of years - the trees are trimmed every year so there is plenty of wood available. The olive wood gives the bread a particular and unique flavour. Ioannis also uses another type of local wood which gives the flames a particularly yellow hue. He has to remember to put the following day's wood in the cooling oven at the end of the baking day to completely dry out so that it bursts readily into flame when he needs it to. You don't want to be trying to get damp wood to burn at 3am with a day of baking ahead of you!!
This picture is of Ioannis using an old pair or trousers, soaked in water, to cool and wipe the floor of the oven prior to baking. The oven is very deep with a hole in the middle of the floor down into the firebox. Ioannis uses a long pole to sweep the trousers right round the circular floor, dexterously avoiding the hole and the flames below. The heat comes up through this hole, hits the conical roof of the oven and then sweeps right out to the edges giving a nice even bake all around. The oven is some 100 years old and in that time has only been re-floored three times - once most recently by his father.
This is the small bakery where all the doughs are mixed and prepared. A large proportion of the bread Ioannis bakes is sourdough. However, unlike us where we start each dough off with a leaven that we have mixed and built in volume the day before but which we keep going from day to day by feeding it, Ioannis starts each individual dough off from scratch as a new sourdough culture 10 days ahead of when he is going to bake it. He uses three different methods for starting a sourdough dough: the juice of boiled onions, sharp wine as a bi-product of the wine production, or lemons. Mixed with flour, water and salt, these starters are then left to help the dough begin a natural fermentation process over the course of the 10 days. Every day, the dough is added to and turned. This means that there are doughs in various stages of development all around the bakery - all sourdoughs, all their own unique wild-yeast culture.
Once finally mixed and fermented, Ioannis uses this nifty conical moulding machine to shape pieces of dough into round loaves. As the piece of dough passes up and round the cone like going backwards on a helter-skelter, it is turned and rolled into a round ball. The loaves are then proved in long wooden cases on cloths. There is plenty of warmth on the Pelion to ensure a nice lively dough and good proving conditions!
Each loaf is then individually transferred from the wooden cases to the long peel, scored and slid deep in to the oven.
These are the loaves right in the back of the oven but Ioannis can fill the whole oven with loaves, using the peel to move them around as necessary during the baking. However, from what I could see, they were pretty much left to bake without being disturbed and they came out very consistently and evenly baked. It would seem to be a very efficient and even heat right across the vast space.
It was an absolute delight to meet Ioannis and to share information about our different breads and different techniques. I am doing my best to encourage him to come and visit us in our bakery in Derbyshire - not such warm weather but we have other attractions! He says that if this autumn is a year when there is no olive harvest, then he may well have the time for a visit. I do hope so.