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The Poetics of Salt, journey 2: Khlebosolny/Bread and Salt

Offere 2 Detail Min

Offere II, 2012.

From discussions with my family, I understood that, through stages of assimilation, our connection to our past had become less visible. While personal records of family history were kept, religious and cultural practices were no longer familiar. Languages had been lost too: no one spoke Yiddish or Russian anymore, although my father knew a few words in Hebrew. The fate of distant family members who had not left Eastern Europe was not something with which our immediate family seemed to feel a direct connection. I felt that there had been a deliberate attempt in our family to leave aspects of Jewish culture behind, and that they preferred the comfort of assimilation. That they escaped the fate of those who stayed behind was not something openly spoken about. In order to discover more about our past, in 2012, Rebecca and I made a journey to Eastern Europe. We knew that Woolf Beinart had grown up in or near to a small town in north-eastern Lithuania called Rokiskis, and that further back some family members had lived in the capital Vilnius.

Staying in Vilnius, we found that our distant ancestors the Meisels had lived in Jatkowa Street, later part of the Jewish Ghetto. We decided to make a performative and intuitive response to Jatkowa Street, in an artwork we titled Ar pamenate į Meisels?1 (‘Do you remember the Meisels?’ in Lithuanian). Using a crystal brought with me on the journey, I stopped at each doorway on Jatkowa street, dowsing for our ancestors’ home. When we had found what we thought was their doorway, I sprinkled salt we had carried with us from South Africa onto the grass.

P1110847 Min

Ar pamenate į Meisels?, performance, photographic documentation, 27 July 2012.

This salting of the earth was both a ritual act and a form of memorial. In the act of salting the earth, the salt temporarily demarcates a space, but it rapidly vanishes, however where a residue remains it affects the soil into which it mixes.

Before we left Vilnius to travel onwards to Rokiskis, we had made bread with our Starter Culture mix, using our South African salt and Lithuanian flour and water. The local flour added a new ingredient to the culture, which so far had been made in South Africa, the UK, and on board ship. We made two loaves to take on our journey to Rokiskis and Obeliai, the town and nearby village from which our research showed that the Beinarts came, and to carry out the Khlebosolny threshold ritual we first performed at sea, en route to South Africa.
 
Bread culture is a live organism that needs continual feeding and refreshing with flour and water.1 When the bread is baked, salt is added not only for flavour but also to tighten the gluten structure, since it strengthens the dough. It also helps the loaf to hold on to the carbon dioxide gas that is formed during fermentation, thereby supporting good volume. A popular baking website further notes:2

Salt also slows down fermentation and enzyme activity in dough. The salt crystals draw water away from their environment (salt is “hygroscopic”). When salt and yeast compete for water, salt wins and the yeast is slowed down.

The balance of flour, water and salt is crucial, therefore, to the bread-making process and to the maintenance of the culture.

As well as referring to bread and salt, khlebosolny or khleb da sol means a ceremony of welcome, using bread and salt (as discussed in Journey 1).3 In War and Peace, Tolstoy refers to ‘the bread and salt of hospitality’,4 which writer Joanna Trew explains in relation to Slavic culture:5

Across the Slavic world, bread and salt is offered as part of a traditional welcome ceremony. A round loaf of bread is placed on a tray, with a salt-cellar placed on top, or in a hole cut into the bread. Both the tray and the loaf would be highly decorated. The tradition persists to this day, especially at weddings, and during state visits from foreign leaders, where local people dress up in national costume to present the bread and salt.

Later on our journey, visiting the Bread Museum in St Petersburg, we read that when a Russian person made a new settlement, they ploughed a field and sowed ‘bread’,6 or ‘sat down on the ground’.7 In Russian homes, the bread was stored in a special khlebnya:8

a round or oval box with densely closed cover, placed in a forward corner on a bench under icons. Only the owner of the house could take bread out from it.

Bread enshrined both farming and gathering, and it also had certain almost magical properties.10 

We arrived at the Obeliai cemetery near Rokiskis and combed through headstones in the long grass. We could not find any with our family name. We made a performance, Offere II, walking towards each other through the headstones and flowers, and meeting in front of the gravestones to perform the Khlebosolny ritual, sharing bread and salt, in an echo of the film we made at the salt pans in South Africa). We did not know for certain if this was where Woolf Beinart was born, but he had lived there at one time and we had brought an offering of salt from the place to which he had emigrated. After we shared the bread and salt, we sprinkled the rest of the salt from South Africa onto the ground by the gravestones.

Image 2 19 Sprinkling Salt Min

Offere II performance, photographic documentation, July 2012.

The traditional bread and salt ceremony marks the crossing of a threshold, often to a new home. But perhaps we are re-enacting this tradition in reverse: bringing with us the histories of lives that stemmed from this place but were lived out in an unimaginable future. A threshold between different time zones, different possible fates, diverging paths.

11

Black bread recipe (using a sourdough starter)

Ingredients:
Soaker: 2 ¼ oz cracked rye, 4 ounces water
Rye sour: 9 oz whole rye flour, 8 oz water, 1/2oz sourdough starter
Dough: 6 oz water, All of the soaker and rye sour, 7.5 oz sourdough starter, 1.5 oz black molasses, 4.5 oz flour, 8 oz rye flour, 1 tsp fennel seed, ground, 2 tsps instant yeast, 2 tsps salt, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder.
 
Method:
For the rye soaker:
combine the cracked rye and water in a small container, cover and let soak overnight

For the rye sour:
combine the flour, water and starter and mix till smooth. Dust surface with flour and let stand for 12-15 hours.

For the dough:
Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix, then knead by hand until sticky.
Transfer to a bread pan or Pullman pan (a pan with a lid)
Dust with flour and leave to rise for 45 mins or so
Place in oven and bake for 15 mins at 240C, then 15 mins mins at 200C and then reduce to 165C and bake for another 45 mins.  
Remove from oven and leave to cool. Best if left for 24 hours before slicing.
 
There are many variations on this recipe, for more info and discussion on breadmaking, see http://www.thefreshloaf.com/

all images © Katy and Rebecca Beinart

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Andrew Whitley, DO Sourdough: Slow Bread for Busy Lives. London: The Do Book Co., 2014.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Weekend Bakery website: <https://www.weekendbakery.com/... > [accessed 2 August 2017].

Go to footnote reference 3.

R.E.F. Smith and David Christian, Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009, p. 5.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Amy Mandelker, revised edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010, p. 405.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Joanna Trew, ‘Review of Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace’, Bookdrum website

<http://www.bookdrum.com/books/...>[accessed 2 August 2017].

Go to footnote reference 6.

Meaning various grain crops, including rye, barley, wheat, oats and buckwheat. Museum text, St Petersburg Bread Museum.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Museum text, St Petersburg Bread Museum.

Go to footnote reference 8.

ibid.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Smith and Christian, p. 65

Katy Beinart

Katy Beinart is an interdisciplinary artist whose art works include installation, public art and performance. After studying architecture, Katy has practiced as an artist since 2004, combining art and architecture to make artwork in the public realm. She has recently completed a practice-based PhD at the Bartlett, University College London, which brings together her interests in public art practices, urban regeneration, migration - and salt. For more information about her practice and background, see http://www.katybeinart.co.uk