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On Bread and Salt

May 31, 2018

‘The guest shall be welcomed with bread, salt and heart,’

 

says the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a set of traditional Albanian laws codified in the Fifteenth Century. A custom that started way before then though and is still carried out today, not just in Albania, but in Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo.

 

Photo by Victor Rodríguez Iglesias on Unsplash

 

And in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. ‘Bread and salt’ is an actual greeting. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Bread and salt are offered at weddings. Poland, Romania, Serbia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To bless a new home. Iran and Armenia, and across the Middle East.

 

To be offered bread and salt means to be welcome, to belong. There is no greater, or simpler, expression of hospitality and trust.

 

In Lebanon, it would be bread and thyme. Bread and zaatar, to be precise; thyme mixed with rosemary, sumac, and sesame seeds, a drizzle of olive oil. And salt.

 

It is flat and pliable. Hot, just out of the furn that has always been there, across the street. Warm and fragrant. White. The dough’s thickness variable, to taste. Folded into a crescent or wrapped around freshly picked and rinsed tomatoes, olives, mint leaves, thinly sliced cucumbers. Sometimes a dollop of labne.

 

Bread is different in other places. Loaf, baguette, bagel, focaccia, naan, pogača, bocadillo, brioche, chapati, challah, lavash, pretzel, puri, tortilla. But bread everywhere, and for thirty thousand years, has been the most principal form of food for all men. From the starch of plant roots, to grains, to leavened wheat, cooked over open fire or baked, bread has meant the survival, or demise, of every civilization in history.

 

Its value is nutritional, religious, philosophical, and when offered to a guest, it symbolizes security, prosperity. It means: I will take care of you.

 

Salt differs too in various parts of the world. Sea, table, coarse, Fleur de sel, pink Himalayan, Celtic grey, black or red Hawaiian, Kala Namak, kosher, smoked, flake. But salt throughout history and everywhere as well has meant wealth and social status, luxury. Used in religious offerings and trade, as currency, food preservative and antiseptic, salt has been mined, taxed, fought for, and smuggled. And offered to the most valued guests.

 

‘With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt.’ Salt is a symbol of permanence. ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ It means: you are essential to me.

 

Well once upon a time, one guest landed in Beirut international airport at dawn. The arrivals lounge was already crowded with families being reunited. She whizzed past embracing couples and trolleys, through the doors and into a taxi. An onlooker would have found the scene sad, but that solitary guest looked quite happy.

 

No traffic at dawn. A Beiruti rarity. The trip was blissfully short. A stop at the furn across the street, only just opening its doors. She knew that baker, the smell of that dough. He spread it thin, as she likes it. She knew that zaatar too; the smell of sumac prominent, and just the right amount of salt.

 

Four please; one for her and one for each of the three at home, still sleeping. In fact, make that six, in the event of an extra hungry riser or impromptu guest.

 

Precious cargo well wrapped and in hand, she then hurriedly crossed the street again. Of course she had the keys. She tiptoed in, but,

 

the dog foiled her surprise.

 

Joyful welcoming barks and tail wags gave the guest’s entrance away. The family awoke and rushed madly down the stairs, found the bread and salt in the kitchen. And standing next them, grinning sheepishly, finally home, they found heart.

 

 

For you, M.

 

 

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