Bread is to Turkey as rice is to China. Once upon a time most of the country’s commercially sold breads were made in firin, or wood-fired stone oven bakeries. Today urban redevelopment, gentrification and customer preference for the convenience offered by grocery stores and hypermarkets have rendered firin nearly obsolete in many cities and towns in western Turkey. But in the country’s eastern half, from the provinces bordering Syria in the southeast and heading north to the Black Sea coast, firin (the term refers both to the oven and the bakery) remain a source of daily bread and a center of community life.
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You’ll often know a firin by the stack of firewood outside its front door. Ovens are heated directly by fires built inside, or indirectly via fireboxes. In some parts of eastern Turkey, firin feature a tandir in addition to, or instead of, the standard stone oven.
Firin range from pocket sized to expansive. In Van, a city in Turkey’s far east, tiny Kucuk Yildiz (“Little Star”) packs mixing, proofing and shaping areas in two low stories stacked above the wood oven, which sits in the middle of the bakery’s approximately 10-by-12-foot ground floor. Unbaked pide (plain flatbreads) and corek (oily and flaky flatbreads) slide down into the oven, and when the breads are finished they’re stored stacked against the firin’s window.
What comes out of a firin depends on where it’s located. Pide are common to much of eastern Turkey, but they vary greatly in size and shape, from Diyarbakir’s huge puffy trapezoids to Tokat’s thin oblongs. On the Black Sea, corn bread and heavy loaves of koy ekmegi (“village bread”), made with unbleached flour and marked by the chard leaves baked into their base, are mainstays, and in the southeast lavash — for wrapping the ubiquitous kebab — is common.
Many firin switch up their offerings depending on the time of day. Simit and morning breads, like the large envelope-shaped flaky breads called kete in Kars and the gently spiced coiled buns baked in Antakya, may give way at lunchtime to pide and, in the southeast, lahmacun or katikli ekmek (flatbreads with a thin shmear of spicy cheese). As late afternoon approaches, some firin in Sanliurfa turn out sugar-sprinkled flatbreads, while in Adiyaman the sugar is supplemented with soft cheese.
Firin for the community
Firin are not only bakeries, but community ovens as well, to which homemakers and esnaf lokantasi (“tradesmen’s restaurants”) pay a nominal fee (less than U.S. $1) to cook their own foods. In mid-morning, restaurant staffers arrive with pots of stew and trays of meat and vegetables; come late afternoon, sons and daughters ferry in pans of fish fillets seasoned with herbs and kirmizi biber (crushed red pepper), potatoes layered with bell peppers, tomatoes and onions or pans of white beans with bits of meat and tomato. If a firin is located near a butcher a homemaker might call in a order — 10 pirzola (flattened lamb chops), for instance — that the butcher will season and send to the oven.
Finished dishes are set out ready for pickup on the firin’s marble counter or wooden cooling rack, draped with a large pide that will keep the meal hot. That pide will also serve as a potholder for whomever is carrying the dish home.
Some firin deliver — by bike, car, truck and wheelbarrow. During Ramadan, Van’s Kucuk Yildiz packs boxes of corek to send by bus to Istanbul, for migrants who couldn’t imagine a pre-dawn meal without their home city’s beloved breakfast flatbread.
Main photo: Baked goods from eastern Turkey’s firin. Credit: David Hagerman