Exert taken from the book Mouneh:
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Purely traditional bread making begins with a starter which can take up to a week to ferment and become established. A starter is a flour and water mixture that collects wild yeasts from the atmosphere. It is created by simply combining flour and water allowing it to ferment by airborne yeast. The starter is used to leaven breads. A small amount of the dough is then kept back and used for the next batch. With time, starters improve, so with a few attempts, your bread will develop a very distinctive flavor and texture.
To produce bread in the past, one had to harvest the wheat, separate the grain from the husk, crush the grain into flour, mix it with water, leaven the dough, and finally bake it. Peasant families, usually women, would bake on a fixed weekly schedule. The bread was baked on a convex disc (saj) in a sheltered spot or it was taken to the communal oven (forn).
For Christian villagers, the initial starter was made on the 6th of January, Feast of the Epiphany. A small mixture of flour and water was formed into a small piece of dough. This dough was hung on a tree on the eve of the feast. Villagers believed that Christ would come late and bless the dough and everything outside including the crops and the animals. The tree would bow modestly at the moment of Christ’s benediction. The small piece of dough would be hung on various types of trees, with the exception of the fig tree. According to legend, the fig tree was shunned because Judas was said to have hung himself on this tree. This starter, called khamiret al-Massih – meaning Christ’s yeast - was then used to make bread. Before the bread was baked, a small piece of the risen dough was set aside to leaven the next batch. This process continued throughout the year and would sometimes last indefinitely.
To this day, you can still find households in Lebanon who make their homemade starter to be used throughout the year. Unfortunately, it has become a rarity mostly done in villages. There are, however, some enthusiastic bakers (like my mother and her dear friend Mrs. Marcelle Aboussouan) who believe that using one’s starter makes the whole experience of bread making a ritual worthy of safeguarding, along with other ancient baking techniques and precious cultural culinary traditions.
|Bread baked on the saj|
|Measuring the water to make the starter|
|Helweh wa Moora, everyone at work!|
|The final step, hanging the piece of dough outside for 10 days|