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Christmas Bread Stories

Christmas Bread Stories
Image: Dresden Tourism
Christian countries fire up their ovens to bake traditional, symbolic loaves loaded with fruits, nuts, myths and legends.
Bread has had religious connotations since time immemorial- a popular euphemism is 'the staff of life'. This adage is never truer than at Christmastime, when Christian countries worldwide fire up their ovens to bake traditional, symbolic loaves- many loaded with fruits, nuts, myths and legends.
The literal translation of this Swiss speciality is 'pear bread'- yet the recipe itself is so much richer than that suggests. Birnbrod is a toothsome, dense fruit-and-nut concoction, comprising not just pears, but sultanas, dates, prunes, raisins and figs besides. The fruits lend the characteristic deep colour, whilst pine kernels, nut, candied peel, kirsch, vanilla and spices contribute texture and a distinct yet complex flavour to the filling, which is baked encased in dough. A festive bread with peasant roots, the ingredients mean birnbrod has excellent keeping qualities- and is traditionally baked in batches to last right through to Candlemass (2nd February). As a Christmas confection, it's particularly popular in the Swiss alpine region of Grisons- a permanent church village in the Engadine, highly regarded for its pastries. Many of the cooks emigrated following hardship and persecution at the hands of the Habsburgs, resulting in the wider popularity of birnbrod.
The Milanese panettone owes its exceptional lightness to its unusually long proving time, yielding a fluffy, cake-like crumb typically studded with raisins and candied fruits- which became a political inclusion following the uprisings of 1821, when the substitution of red cherries and green citron represented the tricolore. The name is thought to relate to the size- 'large bread', or the richness- 'luxury bread', in Milanese dialect. Panettone is likely to have Roman roots, with depictions in C16th paintings.  If you choose to take the romantic route, C15th legend has it that a nobleman provided the means for Toni- the poor baker father of his amore, to create a luxury loaf, winning him over in the process. Another folk tale describes the invention as altogether more serendipitous, with Toni as a poor kitchen hand who rustled up dessert for the royal court. It is traditional to save a piece of panettone for consumption on February 3rd- the day of Saint Biageo, protector of the throat.
Over time, the recipe for stollen has become as rich as its heritage. In the Middle Ages, the recipe consisted of little more than oats, flour and water- but now commonly includes a wealth of dried fruit and often an almond paste core. The original stollen dates back beyond 1400, taking its name from Middle German for 'post' or 'support'. Stollen's introduction as a festive delicacy came in 1427 when, due to the frugal nature of the ingredients, it was in perfect accord with strict church doctrines. In 1491, it was agreed that Dresden bakers could use butter- incurring a fee which went towards the building of churches. Today, a stollen festival is held annually in Dresden, continuing the tradition of C16th forebears who baked and paraded giant specimens- the form of which represents the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes, betraying the bread's religious heritage. Genuine Dresden stollen bear a seal depicting August the Strong- the city's famous king, and may only be baked by 150 approved artisans.
The classic Christopsomo originates in the Peloponnese, and is decorated with an early Christian cross- lending it the colloquial name 'stavrospsomo'- 'cross bread'. Important initials, numbers, and depictions of the family's life may be added.  The bread itself is richly fruited, replete with wine-soaked figs, anise, orange and occasionally mastic, or dried pine resin. Traditionally, the bread is consumed with honey on Christmas Eve. Messenian families may keep back the first slice to give to the first Christmas day caller, and even sprinkle crumbs under the trees to improve crop yield. Remainders are left out overnight for Christ to eat. The care afforded to the baking process is said to be representative of the household's prosperity in the coming year. Before preparing the dough, the cook will often cross themselves. The loaf is traditional food during the 40-day fast, and some households even keep a Christopsomo nailed to the wall year round, as a reminder of Christ's blessing. Variations exist in Epirus- where it's called 'kouloura', Crete, Cephalonia, and Zakynthos- where the fluffy loaf resembles panettone.
Originating in Northern Iceland in C18th, these flat, hard, cracker-like circular cakes are in marked contrast to the richly fruited offerings of other countries. Their name means 'leaf' or 'snowflake' bread, and laufabrauð are often exquisitely cut and decorated, made as part of a family ceremony. The dough is very dense, made with wheat flour, sometimes boosted with the inclusion of rye flour and caraway seed. The dough should be rolled out like filo or strudel pastry- thin enough that a newspaper can be read through it. It's then folded and snipped to create a snowflake pattern- which may be done by hand or using a brass roller- and fried in lard. The laufabrauð are commonly consumed with hangikjöt (smoked lamb), rjúpa (ptarmigan) or smoked pork, and may be eaten like pancakes with syrup.
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19 December 2010
By: Zoe Perrett
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