Monday, May 19, 2008

Baking Bread in the Balkans

While the world greets past midnight as a time to sleep, for the bakers in the Balkans, it is time to make bread. For them, nothing is more fulfilling and edifying than to continue a tradition that has been with the family for generations; and to pass on the knowledge, valued methods and recipes to their children. Whatever upheaval, disturbance, or crisis transpires, the making of bread will not vanish from the palate of the people in the Balkans. And, in the long violent and turbulent history of the Balkans, it is unavoidable to express the individual stories from a baker's perspective. Their history, it seems, is written in bread.

In the old Yugoslavia, practically all the bakers were Albanians, scattered in the four corners of the Balkans to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia. But they have always considered Kosovo their home. The Albanians talk of the popularity of burek throughout the Ottoman Empire, made of thin flaky dough and filled with salty cheese, minced meat, apple, sour cherry, mushrooms, potatoes or other vegetables; and sprinkled with sesame seeds on top. The Serbian burek became popular in Croatia and Slovenia when it was introduced through Zagreb by Albanian bakers. Then in 1999, when the Serbs stopped delivering flour that caused them to suspend baking, they knew it was time to move out - just in time to escape the NATO bombing that decimated the Serbian forces
. When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia recently, another round of violence was inevitably felt by the Albanian bakers.

Azem Collaku now
a retired Albanian baker in Kosovo, worked in the ethnically mixed town Mitrovica in northern Kosovo for 40 years, and witnessed many violent upheavals that threatened the trade. His son Afrim, saw his shop in Belgrade smashed by radical groups during the declaration of Kosovo's independence. Radical youths in Northern Serbia also gave away free bread in front of an Albanian bakery to drive it out of business, while another group posted a video clip of themselves and sent it to YouTube showing the burning of an Albanian bakery. But, these Albanian bakers continue to roll out the bread.

Men dominate Kosovan society but they are seldom seen in Kosovo. They spend 8 to 10 months in places they now call "abroad" since the former Yugoslavia was broken up into several independent states. Working as bakers or bakeshop owners, they send money home for their family's needs while face continued threats of violence in places where they work. Progress in Kosovo comes from "bread money", and their only wish is that their children would not have to move out of Kosovo, but to build their lives and establish their old traditions in their new country. More than ever, it has become critically important to keep the ovens running and produce what has become an integral part of the Balkan cuisine that has survived centuries of bloodshed - to improve their lives and sustain their family, as well as to contribute to nation building.

Pride in what they do is evident in their disposition. As one Albanian baker explains, they can sleep soundly at night knowing the money they spend comes from their own sweat. The tradition itself has maintained the value of hard work. It is a cultural heritage and a priceless legacy that is built into the character and mindset of a people. One of the last remaining ways of making honest bread, so to speak.



SheR. said...

Ah!! You're touching on something that's really close to home here!!
Yes ALL the bakeries in Croatia are owned by Albanians!

They churn out fresh breads daily even on Sundays. They are the only shops in towns that are open on Sunday afternoons! They worked really hard.

Although I've heard stories of what they added in their breads to make the breads appear whiter...

3 Cheers to all Bakers regardless of nationalities! We are the most hardworking people!!

durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit said...

Hi Sher,

Hey, you're all over my blog! I don't mind at all, you're more than welcome.:-)

I've read about their traditions and the region where they come from that has very little water. They adjust to the place and develop skills that fit with their location.

That's why there's a region where they are all bakers, another where they are builders, and so on.

The history of bread making as a family legacy for generations is quite interesting, and this evolved amidst war, turbulence, ethnic cleansing - and its passed on to the next generation. Albanian bakers dominate the Balkans and they are in all the now independent states, but they return home to Kosovo for at least 2 months within a year.

They are good bakers too. The Burek is the most famous and popular bread, actually meat or vegetable pie, that they produce.

I saw this story and researched it a bit, and I want you to consider it a tribute to you - a baker in the Balkans - not Albanian but Singaporean, and soon a Croatian - but one who can match skills and talents with any Albanian, anytime.
Cheers to the Bakers! Cheers to the Balkans! Cheers to Sher! :-) --Durano, done!

ZenDenizen said...

I don't know you but I imagine you being able to recite all of this (and more!) verbatiim and on queue.

durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit said...

Hi Zen,

I'm sorry, but you lost me there. What am I able to recite verbatim and on queue, the post itself?

I don't get what you mean. Perhaps I'm a little dense today from all the tragedy and garbage I've been seeing. :-) --Durano, done!

SheR. said...

Oh I tried the Burek once! Didn't like it. They use goat's cheese and it's really oily.. not to my liking though all croatians love them!
Thanks for the tribute!!! :)

durano lawayan a.k.a. brad spit said...

Hi Sher,

There are different types of burek, the meat filled, vegetable filled and fruit filled.

I wouldn't like it if it were too oily though.

You're welcome to the tribute! :-) --Durano, done!

Ina said...

Good Job! :)