BY AURELIA word count: 610
All the women in Sfakia (and the men, if truth be told), agree that Manoussos’ wife, Maria, (God rest her soul) made the best crusty country bread (Cwristiko ywmi) in all of Sfakia. It seemed that Maria baked her very best loaves for the holidays, so it was with sadness that families in Sfakia approached the Christmas season, knowing that they would not be enjoying Maria’s bread. They compensated for this by telling stories about Maria.
Voula spoke first, explaining that Maria did not keep the recipe to herself. She said Maria would take her dough on a wooden plank to the outdoor brick oven behind Antonio the baker’s house and it was there that she would give her recipe to anyone who asked.
Anna added that it was when Maria took her bread from the oven and the women saw the beautiful large loafs with the golden crusts that she was asked again and again about the recipe. “I told you,” Maria would say, “it is wheat flour, lukewarm water, yeast, salt, olive oil, milk, and honey.” She named the ingredients freely, but she never explained exactly how much of each nor did she mention when she added the honey and the olive oil, and she would never knead the bread in front of anyone. If a visitor was in her house or near her at the communal oven, Maria would make sure, discretely, that her bread kneading skills were not on display.
The women asked each other “What was Maria’s secret?” Voula offered that the bread must have had such a fine crust because of the extra time Maria kept it in the oven. “Did you not notice,” Voula said, “Maria always removed her bread last.” The other women agreed, adding the even when they said “Your turn, Maria, take your bread,” she would always demur and wait for all of us to remove our loaves. “Yes,” Anna agreed, pointing out that this gave her bread the important two or three additional minutes in the hot oven to get a good crust.
At this point, Antonio the baker joined the women. He had been inside his shop listening. “I know Maria’s secret,” Antonio said, “but even knowing that, I cannot duplicate her bread.” The women gathered round, asking Antonio to solve the mystery. “It was the advice Maria received from her mother, given to her by her own mother, Maria’s grandmother, he said, pausing to make sure all of the women heard this. “What advice, Antonio, what secrets did she receive? Please tell us?” the women pleaded.
After achieving the dramatic effect he sought, Antonio revealed the words spoken to Maria by her mother. Bending toward the women and speaking in a confidential tone, Antonio whispered, “Your touch should be as light as the wings of an angel.” And he repeated this again in an even lower whisper.
Now, assured that he had the rapt attention of his audience, Antonio said, “I will demonstrate,” taking a round of dough and placing it on a floured plank. “An angel does not pound the bread,” he said, gently squeezing and turning the bread. An angel brushes the bread with its wings and flies away.”
The women were enthralled. “If this is the secret,” Voula said,” “why cannot we or you make Maria’s bread?” “Ah,” said Antonio, “I suppose it is because the angel flew away with our Maria.”
From that time forward, the people of Sfakia gathered at Antonio’s bakery every Christmas to hear the story of Maria’s bread kneaded by the wings of an angel.