September 1, 2017   - Vol. IX No. 18
Breaking Bread Across the Mediterranean
Today kicks off Whole Grains Month, and enjoying the Mediterranean Diet is a great way to celebrate since whole grains make up a big part of the base of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. In particular, breads traditionally made with whole grains are staples around the Mediterranean and the world, varying across cultures based on local traditions, ingredients, and flavors. Not only are they delicious, but they have been linked to many health benefits, including decreased risk of diabetes, gallbladder removal, and death from colorectal cancer.

But how did bread become so ubiquitous, and what does it look like in different areas of the Mediterranean? Journey with us as we look at its history and take a tour of breads around the region.

The Rise of Bread

Bread’s origins can be traced back over 10,000 years ago to early civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean’s Fertile Crescent, an area of land that encompassed parts what we now know as Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. The earliest “breads” were probably more like cakes, made from mashed grains most commonly barley and wheat and water.

As civilizations spread across the Mediterranean region, bread evolved with them. The Ancient Egyptians were among the first to create what we might consider “modern” bread, allowing dough to ferment and developing some of the first bread-making tools. Other styles of bread often flatbreads became staples of Ancient Greek and Roman diets.

Breads Around the Mediterranean

In the modern Mediterranean diet, traditional breads are still enjoyed at all meals of the day, often to soak up liquid from a bean stew or a vegetable salad. With all their different shapes, fillings, and flavors, the variety of Mediterranean breads is endless. Here are a few of our favorites: 

  • Pita. No doubt you’re already familiar with this circular flatbread made primarily with flour, water, and yeast. However, even pitas can vary: Middle Eastern pitas tend to be relatively thin, while Greek pitas are known for their fluffy texture. Pita’s signature internal pocket is created by baking the dough at extremely high temperatures. It can be dipped in sauces and spreads like hummus, used as a wrap or pocket for sandwiches like souvlaki and falafel, or serve as the base of a small pizza. 

  • Socca. Socca, also known as farinata, originated in Southern France and Liguria and is an unleavened flatbread made from chickpea flour. Its dough is similar to pancake batter and is baked in an open, wood-burning oven, usually in a cast iron skillet or copper-plated pan. The result is a crispy flatbread with a smoky or nutty flavor. Socca is typically sliced and served with vegetables, meat, or other ingredients, either added as toppings after cooking or baked into the dough.

  • Focaccia. Another familiar flatbread, focaccia first appeared in Italy but quickly spread across the Mediterranean (and beyond), with each region adding unique ingredients. Most often, it is topped with olive oil and herbs and is eaten on its own, but like pita bread can also be a sandwich bread or pizza base. The indentations (“wells”) on foccacia’s surface hold olive oil and other toppings in place during baking and are created by “dotting,” which is simply making depressions with a spoon or by hand.

  • Simit. A popular Turkish street food sold off trollies or even vendors’ heads, simit is a circular bread (sometimes referred to as a “Turkish bagel”) usually coated with sesame seeds. It is chewy in the center but has a crispy crust, which is caused by using pekmez (grape molasses) as a dough ingredient. Simit is typically served for breakfast with tea, cheese, or tahini. 

  • M’smen. Traditional to North African countries primarily Morocco m’smen is a flaky, buttery bread usually served for breakfast along with honey and tea. It can be served plain or stuffed with meat and veggies. Wheat flour, semolina, and butter are key ingredients of the dough, which resembles that of a pancake or crepe, and m’smen’s unique flaky texture is a result of rolling the dough out and folding it in multiple layers into a square shape.

  • Maneesh. Maneesh is a Middle Eastern bread most commonly associated with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. After rolling out the dough, wells are made by hand (similar to focaccia), and toppings are added before baking. The most popular topping, especially in Lebanon, is za’atar, a mixture of sesame seeds, spices, and herbs like thyme or oregano. Maneesh is usually served for breakfast; it can be folded over or simply sliced as a flatbread.

You can prepare and eat any of these breads on their own, or include them as ingredients in a larger dish. See below for some tasty recipes and check out our whole grain baking tips.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

This a wonderful, clean-tasting salad with incredible dressing, adapted from a recipe in The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by our friend Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Be sure to use both the mint and the parsley!

An Oldways recipe and iStock photo.

Socca is a chickpea pancake or crepe served in France and Italy. The base of a socca is chickpea flour, which is high in protein and fiber and is an excellent source of vitamin B-6, magnesium, and iron.

Recipe courtesy of Emilia Petrucci and Oldways.

Paximadia was “invented” years ago by Greek housewives, who used to cut out some of their bread dough and dry it, rather than bake it in an oven. This hard bread traditionally a barley rusk is eaten all over Greece, and every region has its own “recipe.”

An Oldways recipe and iStock photo.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.