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Bread Between Us

By Priya Basil

Where did it start? People wonder after they’ve had a bite of pan European. And I’m tempted to respond with another question: where does anything begin? Origin stories are always contentious, and this one perhaps even more so than most – because it has to do with bread, which is to say it has to do with taste, which is to say it always gets very, very personal.

So, where did it start? They are eager to know and I must answer – people expect it of me, I’m a continent after all, not the biggest by any measure, unless you’re counting which made the most mess of things, then I possibly come in tops. Yes, I have my dark ages, long shadows, unresolved debts. Let’s not get into how any of that started. Not now. Just mention of the topic makes parts of me go rigid. Resistance builds. Memory fails. Fights break out. Attempts are underway to change this but, frankly, much of me is old, slow and stubborn. I do some things better than others, admitting or correcting errors is not my forte. I’m good at growing, my appetites were always huge – but that’s exactly what led to problems, so there are efforts to control that impulse, or at least re-direct it. Grow imagination, ideas of community, practices of generosity instead. Bread helps.

Sometimes I imagine myself as a huge loaf, multi-grain, multi-seed, multi-everything for multitudes. There were loaves like that once, apparently, way back in the day, when saints roamed the earth and legends abounded: four loaves that fed five thousand. Miracle bread. Another founding story beloved of many here, though they seem to think such marvels don’t happen any more. But maybe it’s our sense of the marvellous that has changed. Isn’t everything possible, if you’re open for it? That’s how the pan ways came about. The pan pane pain pso̱mí pão brood Brot chleb kruh ekmek ways. Ways with more names than I can say. They snuck up on people, tickling nostrils, drawing folks along with the irresistible scent of what’s familiar yet new.

It’s said the first whiff – warm, fresh, comforting – came from a very small village right at the centre of everything. It was a place like the one you grew up in. To be precise: it was your village. It may be that you lived in a metropolis, but isn’t it the case that wherever you are your world is a kind of village? Your street, your park, your market – the areas you knew best, where people knew you. It was the smell of bread from there, the spot closest to your heart, that drew people onto the pan European track, a meandering olfactory path built of flour and water. A path strewn with an endless array of flavours, for this staple – bread – could be infinitely varied. Everyone could have the same as everybody else, while also having their own version. But I am getting ahead of myself, greedily going too fast.

Remember the bakery at the corner, where the fug of yeast hung in the air and iced buns beckoned from behind the window? You were all so proud of that place. The most delicious baked goods in the world were to be found there. The smell alone was to die for! The smell that followed you to school, stomach growling as you bit into a roll, a hint of spice piercing your nose, an excess of seeds spilling down your front.

How lucky we are! The people of the village declared. Nobody in Europe has better bread than us! This claim scattered far and wide, like the seeds of your roll, first in your country, then in others. Many people were intrigued, others envious, some outraged. Proofs were demanded, and the village complied. Samples of the fragrant bread from just around your corner were sent everywhere. All over, the bread was sliced and shared, sniffed and tasted, analysed and debated. Those who came together to do this began to be called companions. They gathered around tables in cafes and courtyards, in gardens and kitchens. They broke bread. Some ate it plain, while others topped it with local condiments – like Bundz cheese, like clotted cream, like Nutella – and declared it much improved. Many were delighted by your bread, but even more found that theirs was just as good – if not better. Eager to verify this, they prepared samples and sent them off - not only to your village, but also to many others all over the continent with the same message: How lucky we are! We have the best bread in Europe. Everywhere people began to receive new breads – and then to send off their own.

Countless specimens criss-crossed countries: long crusty flutes, dense rolls heavy with rye, pillowy balls weightless as feathers, flatbreads strewn with herbs, loaves jewelled with fruits and nuts, sticks studded with salt, breads like pockets which could be stuffed with anything. Winds of bread blew; alluring aromas descended on hillsides and in fields, wafted outside temples and town halls, lingered at the entrances of offices and banks. Wherever you went, you sniffed a promise in the air: hints of cardamom, rosemary, caraway; traces of alcohol, olive oil, vanilla; whispers of cheese, onion, potato. A promise you couldn’t quite define, but were nonetheless tempted to make, to take, because it seemed to point, like a street sign, towards other ways of being together.

People’s lives filled with new smells, tastes, sounds and ideas as more bread appeared in their villages. Some were inspired to experiment, adapting their own recipes and methods to create yet more kinds of bread. Some were hooked: they contacted the original bakers, placed orders, founded bread companies. Some were compelled to travel to other lands in order to try the real thing in its authentic setting. In this way, the numbers of companions grew. There were more and more of them across the continent: brother and sisters in bread, if only for the duration of a meal. The lovers of the new became known as Breadies. Once they started exchanging, experimenting and eating together they were ready for anything. Let’s have a Bread Union, they said, and share our loaves. First they cut their bread in six, then nine, then more and then in twenty-eight. How lucky we are! They told themselves. Better bread for all of us!

But there were some who refused even to take a bite of the pan. They said it was dangerous, potentially poisonous, likely disastrous. Rumours abounded, yet little was proved. All the while, in households and restaurants, in factories and bake shops, bread continued to be proofed, dough quietly fermenting and rising, waiting to be baked. Who would have thought the product of such simple chemical reactions could seal friendship or cause enmity. Some started campaigns against what they called tasteless bread-mixing. They were known as the No-Breadies. They feared becoming nobodies – after all, who are you if you eat more than one bread? Loaf us alone! They said. They gathered at the borders, set up checkpoints, pinched their noses and started patrols to block the new coming through. But whatever they tried, no matter how many ingredients they stopped, it became clear: the new was already old. So they started another campaign Send the bread back where it came from! They stormed all stores of bread in search of offending types, but it proved hard to distinguish one from the other, everything was already too mixed up. When did this happen? They lamented. But maybe things had always been more jumbled than they knew. Some of the No-Breadies couldn’t accept this, they kept on complaining. Once upon time our home bread sufficed! Now we have bread from everywhere, yet not enough to satisfy our own!

The Breadies got worried, their hearts filled with a hollow feeling, like the sound of cooked bread when you knock at its base. They baked and ate with increased vigour, but even for the most ardent companions the soothing smells could not allay a creeping concern that maybe there wasn’t in fact enough for all. The loaves that had seemed so bountiful began to be divided sparingly. Slices were cut thinner, quarrels erupted over who got more than a fair share. There were accusations of bread winners and losers, and fewer people were willing to give up even a small part of their piece. No bread for any outside our Union! Some said, convinced that was the only answer. And the more people talked about how little there was, the less there seemed to be, when in fact, there was still plenty. Generosity is to unity as yeast is to bread. A few got busy hoarding even as they complained of having none. A few insisted they deserved more than they needed even if it meant others went without. A few argued that people, especially women, should just accept the bread they were given and not make a fuss. And these fews slowly added up, like a recipe for disaster, fomenting fear and strife, until a bunch of No-Breadies vowed to show you could live on white bread alone, preferably medium-sliced and lightly toasted, with lashings of butter butter butter. We are exiting, they declared. More of our own for us alone! They left the Union with a laugh, mouths shiny with grease, bragging about plans that were oven-ready. We’ll see who has the best bread after all! Oblivious to the smell of burning, to their diminishing stocks of flour and increasingly polluted waters, they licked their lips in anticipation of a loaf they could keep all to themselves.

The remaining Breadies watched in dismay, shook their heads, wept – then, hurriedly, they went back to proving, baking, exchanging and breaking bread. It was this after all that had brought them together, kept them connected, opened up villages and worlds. If you always eat alone you remain hungry, some thought. We have to start again, start better, some said. Across the continent, the companions began to practice more pan European ways. They put bread in their shoes once a year to bless the idea of unity. May it continue! They hoped. May it go a long way. May it include ever more. They scored the tops of bread with stars and committed to keep meeting in new constellations, to welcoming change. They threw bread into rivers every spring on the understanding that if nature isn’t taken care of, it takes people. Across the continent, they started meals – and later public discussions, parliamentary debates, jury sittings, indeed any communal gatherings that happened around or near a table – by breaking bread and recognizing each other as companions on a path called life, a path whose direction is decided by who we walk with and how. A path that is always beginning, even when it seems to end. In time, people came to understand the true meaning of that old saying: you cannot live on bread alone. They realized, bread is only bread if it’s shared.