Posted on April 14, 2011 - by

Good Food Around the World: Georgian Kiln Bread

Were it not for the tantalizing aroma wafting down the narrow, puddle-soaked street, I would never have noticed the bakery on the corner. It is tiny—not much bigger than a storage closet. There are only two things on the menu here: a cheese-stuffed pie known as khachapuri, and kiln bread, or tonis puri. These diamond-shaped loaves are baked on the inner walls of an earthen oven and enjoyed at nearly every Georgian feast. Drawn in by my nose, I stopped to watch the baker at work and learn all I could about how they are made.

Temur Jikhadze has been baking for 35 years and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. He picked up the craft on the job as a young man and now, he says, “I can make anything out of dough.” I don’t doubt it. His calm and practiced movements between the table where he forms the loaves and the kiln where he bakes them put me at ease. My questions and clarifications seem not to faze him in the slightest.

Every morning, he mixes a basic dough of flour, yeast, water, and salt, letting it rise in a plastic tub while the kiln heats up. I had imagined him standing in the flour-dusted dawn light, stoking up a roaring fire, but in fact he just plugs the oven into an industrial-size outlet.

After punching down the dough and letting it rise once more in evenly shaped mounds atop his table, Jikhadze stretches each loaf individually across an oblong form–a wooden board on the bottom piled with a hillock of foam and covered with cotton cloth. He pokes a hole in the center of the dough with his finger and sticks his thumb into a small opening at the side of the form to grasp it tightly. He then removes the kiln’s metal cover, places a folded towel on its rim to shield his skin from the intense heat, and smacks the form onto the inner wall of the oven. The dough is left clinging to the bricks, where it will puff, blister, and brown in 6-8 minutes, depending on how close he places it to the source of the heat.

The salt, he says, is a key element. Too much and the bread won’t taste good; too little and the dough won’t stick to the wall of the oven while it bakes. To place loaves deep inside, short-statured Jikhadze must launch himself bodily into the kiln, using his hips as a lever and letting his feet float up off the ground. He smiles wide when I show him the photo I’ve captured of him in this precarious position.

The baker must keep mental track of how long each loaf has been baking and remove them at just the right time. He wields two long wooden sticks, one with a metal hook at the end to poke through the hole in the center of the bread, the other with a metal scraper to pry it gently from the bricks. Using the hook, he transports each loaf onto slatted wooden shelves in the corner to cool. Meanwhile, he distributes loaves for 70 tetri (about 40 cents) each to customers waiting at the open door. He makes change from a flour-dusted matchbox sitting in front of his dough scale.

Most Georgian families don’t buy these loaves for their everyday bread, reserving them instead for special meals or those with some kind of ritual meaning. Jikhadze sends me home with a steaming loaf of my own, which I nevertheless can’t help but devour straight out of its plastic bag as I make my way along crowded, exhaust-choked Chavchavadze Avenue. Usually I hate traversing this stretch of the city, but it’s a testament to the quality of Jikhadze’s work that today, I hardly even notice the crush.

If you visit:

Follow your nose to the tiny tonis puri bakery at Giorgiashvili St. 6 in Batumi, Georgia, not far from the Black Sea port.

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