The door to the house in Hafnarfjörður opens and I’m welcomed in by Mira’s husband Boby. The smell of fresh bread wraps around me like a comfort blanket. Coffee is made, introductions given, and smiles all round.
Mira is the master of this ship, her kitchen is small and kept spotlessly shipshape despite the heavy load of baking she has to do. It’s Good Friday today. There’s páskabrauð in various stages around the room. One turning golden in the oven, next to which I am perched with my sketchbook. One out and resting under a white cloth. One is just a glimmer in Mira’s eye, so far, and I am here to watch it come into being.
Looking at the proving dough, the baking bread, the flour and egg and milk yet to be combined I wonder how Mira can hold the threads in her mind, remember what needs to be done next for each of them. I relax any idea of trying to record a recipe in linear form – this magic is beyond my ken – and anyway, we agree that every cook has their secrets.
Everything made here is baked to order for local people: Mira is a home baker who recently posted in a facebook group (‘away from home: living in iceland’, I have a lot to thank you for) that she can produce homemade bread to order. Photos of complex patterns in plump dough, twists and folds and symmetry: this was bread but not as I knew it. Nosy as ever, I sent her a message asking if I could come and draw while she baked. She accepted, agreed to be on the blog, and here we are.
Milk, warmed slightly, is added to fresh yeast, to activate it. There is no water in this easter bread; lard is used in place of butter, if the customer has no objection. While I ask questions the yeast balloons in size, and Mira knows just when it is right. How could I hope simply to record her recipe in an afternoon and pass it on? There is a deftness to the way she holds the bowls and folds the dough. Movements learned over years, her own lifetime but there’s also the generations before her that made these shapes with their hands too. Family. Mira is Bulgarian, and though I am hitherto completely ignorant of Bulgaria and its culture, I start to learn this afternoon.
Easter bread is being made today, sweet knots of sugar encrusted dough. In Iceland, Mira says, there are three or four special holidays a year, with special foods ascribed to them. In Bulgaria, there are five or six a month. A month! And all with significant things to eat. Some of Mira’s customers are Bulgarians living in Iceland; others are from other European nations that have similar traditions of eating sweet breads at certain holidays: Mira’s recipes, adapted to customers’ requests, fill a gap for many a transplanted and homesick foreigner. Icelanders too, they’re notoriously sweet toothed. Though Mira makes savoury bread and pastries too, showing me photos of filo parcels filled with spinach and cheese, something I’ve eaten in Greece and we all agree is delicious.
There is in fact such an appetite for bread that this past week, as well as working full-time at a hotel, Mira has had only two or three hours of sleep some nights, baking, always baking. This Easter bread is a special case: I’m told because it has sugar in the dough it takes a long time to prove, or rise. Each one proves twice. The dough is kneaded – Mira has a friend round today and she takes over for a while, slapping it down on the counter and pushing it about expertly. This bread is hard work, but Mira’s grandmother is still making it at 82.
Food seems embedded in Bulgarian culture in a way that I feel we have slightly lost in my own British culture. Mira tells me of a facebook group in which Bulgarians post photographs of what they make for dinner each night. We have this act, of course, in the form of an endless ‘look at my bowl of colour and health and cleverness’, but my grandma would never do it. Posting what we eat online seems to be a vehicle for propagandising our view on food, or inflating our self-esteem and social standing, look what I did, look what a good person I am. Of course, I am guilty of it! But it wasn’t til we scrolled through the Bulgarian group that I became aware of the way in which I’m accustomed to doing things, without thought. In this group are normal dinners, these are people who wouldn’t define themselves as ‘foodies’, or make it part of their identity in a constructed way, like I do. it’s just what they do. They share what they eat every day, and perhaps I’ve got my rose-tinted glasses on again but it seemed less contrived, and more an honest celebration and intense interest in food.
She’s not taking any more orders for Easter and tomorrow will be spent instead painting eggs. It is Bulgarian tradition to boil eggs then paint the shells (with food-grade paint), then the children fight with them, then eat the eggs. Of course it makes sense to eat the insides! I only ever remember painting eggs after emptying the egg of its contents, what a waste. And there’s one more tradition of spring that I would like to adopt next year. Mira and Boby had red and white plaited bracelets, worn from the first of March. When the wearer sees the first stork, or the first blossom on a fruit tree, the bracelet is taken off and put on that tree. Boby wistfully pointed out that since there are no storks and no fruit trees in Iceland, they’d be wearing their bracelets a long time.
After a couple of hours bustling round the kitchen, we have a break. Boby shows me his Bulgarian-English phrasebook from which he is teaching himself English. He has naturally made more progress in that time than many English people would in a lifetime of learning, or not, other languages. We’re a lazy bunch. I flick through and find the word for bread, say it again and again, struggling with the harsh sound. Then we get ambitious and he teaches me to say ‘You make good bread’. Mira gets back and I test out my new phrase. They collapse in laughter. She gets out her phone and starts live streaming, talking about what she’s been making today, me grinning uncomprehendingly by her side, waiting for my star role:
‘направите добър хляб’
You make good bread!
I’m fairly certain what I just wrote isn’t what I said but the unfamiliar words have swirled out of my head since this afternoon, with all I was trying to remember of the tales I was told and the laughs we shared. What sticks, more than process, more than weights and measures of ingredients, is the warmth. The openness and generosity of Mira for welcoming me into her home. The pride and love they all have for the traditions of their home country. And the taste of the sweet, moist curl of paskabraud I’m given before I leave.
I’d like to encourage any locals to order some bread from Mira, which you can do via her facebook page. I’d also like to impress upon any body who reads this, anywhere in the world, how amazing it is to meet and connect with people from other places and cultures. I confess, drawing is a blooming easy way of inviting yourself to a new place, but maybe there are other ways. Community events that you can go to. Conversations you can start. Neighbours you can have a cup of tea with. I find the joy of learning and laughing with people that were once strangers is one of the best joys of all.