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The Bread of the Holy Mountain

Observations from Mount Athos


Note: Having spent nearly two weeks on the Holy Mountain, I am the first to admit that I did not spend nearly enough time there to compile the information necessary to present anything approaching a comprehensive treatment of the bread of Mount Athos. I am also limited by the absence of good photography, since many of the monasteries I visited do not permit photography inside the walls of the monastery itself.

I must also mention that I observed a great deal of practical variances between monasteries.  What was done as one monastery was not necessarily so at another, each having its own communal life organized according the needs of each community.  So, what is presented here is not a summary of the 'Athonite Tradition' per se, since it does not necessarily exist in all matters.  Rather, there are numerous traditions depending on where you are.  For example, monasteries ate different types of bread: whole wheat, durumThe importance appeared to be consistency in doing what you were taught and not minding one's neighbors or changing things on a whim.

Any further observations are welcome, and those which are helpful will be posted with the kind permission of the sender. Please email me your observations, and please be as specific as possible as to where you obtained your information.

To help clarify some of the text, I have reproduced several pictures from monastic communities (I don't know exactly where these photos were taken) which I hope will help make some of the text a little clearer.  After you have read through the text below, come back to these photos and study them a little more carefully.  You will see a number of details which may not have been noticed before.

Of course, I would appreciate any photos you may have and are willing to share with the public.











The Journey to Konstamonitou

Our first stop was at the Holy Monastery of Konstamonitou (5 April 2002), where the hard-working monks showed us a great deal of hospitality despite there own austere lifestyle.  On the second day of our visit, an English-speaking monk agreed to give me a tour of the monastery bakery.  It consisted of a simple two-room area, with a large battery-operated machine mixer in one and a huge wood-fired oven in the other.  There is little electricity on the Mountain, and this monastery relies on solar-panels to power the few lightbulbs they have, one of which peered into the dark cavern of which would make an West Los Angeles gourmet pizza chef tremble in awe.  It spanned some five yards, a fine Roman brick dome.  Ashes are dragged to the front right side of the oven floor, where they slide down a chute to a waiting bucket during the cleaning process.

This oven supplied all the baking needs of the monastery, both prosphora and daily rations.  In the basement, a later tour revealed the original monstery oven, well over three times its size but unused in the last 100 years or so because of the decrease in the number of monks.  Since the monstery has reversed the trend under Abbot Agathon, the monks will eventually begin using it as their numbers grow.  In case you were wondering, these ovens operate thusly: a fire in built in the middle of the oven floor, which is allowed to burn down to coals.  Since these are indoor ovens, they are not vented through the top.  Instead, smoke pours out through the front door and rises into metal hoods, which not only collect the soot but also administer bruises to the uncautious (like myself).  Once the fire has died down, the coals are swept to the sides and the hot floor is prepared for the loaves, which are slid into place with large wooden shovels or 'peals' (an artistic rendering is seen on the main page of this website).  The bottoms are dusted with coursely-ground grains, which keep the loaves from sticking.

As you can imagine, such bread lends itself to different shapes.  The regular loaves of daily bread were very long, baking in metal trays to keep them from sticking together.  Lots of small loaves would be difficult to put in and take out of the oven, so they opt for length.  The loaves were two-hands wide and came out about as tall.

The monastery stocked two kinds of flour: yellow durum flour and white flour, the former used for the regular bread and the latter for prosphora.  The durum, a very hard wheat, rendered a tasty but extremely dense loaf.  I doubt it would succeed commercially, but these struggling monks find it best for their needs.  A slice of this and a bowl of beans will keep you filled for the day.  The sourdough flavor comes from starter which is continually maintained from one batch to the next.

The prosphora is a different matter.  Made with white flour, they are about the size of a man's fist.  The baker insists that the dough is not leavened with a starter, but from being left out and allowed to collect naturally-occuring yeast in the air of the church, which is then brought in and allowed to rise and bake.  The bread is tangy in taste and very dense, owing to the wild yeast.  It appears to be a time-consuming process, since the small batches do not warrant use of the enormous power mixer used for daily bread.

There was some debate between the baker and the translating monk as to the proper way to shape a loaf.  The small loaves are in two parts, the top being slightly smaller than the bottom.  The translator explained that at Philotheou Monastery, where many of the older monks had their start befor being reassigned to Konstamonitou to reenvigorate its dwindling community, the bread was shaped into a single ball, then held between the outside edges of the hands and rolled back and forth until two parts were shaped (without separation), something like a compact bowling pin.  The stamp would then be pressed into the top and the loaves would be baked.  This makes prosphora shaped like gently lopsided hour glasses rather than there being a stark line or seam between top and bottom portions.  While I visited Philotheou later, there was not a Liturgy scheduled for that day and so I did not observe the loaves there.

The baker demonstrated his technique in pantomime, since there was no dough available (kind of air guitar for bread experts).  He rolls the dough out into a sausage shape, then selects a spot 2/3 the way down the length of the roll.  Using the outside edge of his hand, he presses down and rolls the loaf back and forth, carefully creating an even 'neck' in the dough but not separating the two portions.  This is critical enough to merit him mentioning it several times.  Once the neck was sufficiently thin, he draws up the two portions into individual balls, tips them over in the larger end and mashes them together with the seal.  No water necessary to glue the parts together.  It is worth noting that the loaves were far from symmetrical, but retained a beauty nonetheless.

The surprise of that morning were the bread stamps themselves.  The first appeared to be a common enough Russian style stamp, consisting of a 1 1/2" Lamb with minimal decoration.  The second I had never seen outside George Galavaris' "Bread and the Liturgy" (Madison, WI:Univ. of Wisconsen Press 1970, Figure 60, Page 106)  Below I have reproduced the image Galavaris used in his book, taken from the Deutsches Brotmuseum in Ulm, Germany.  Below it, I have negativized it and reversed the image so you can get an idea of the impression it  leaves on the dough.  It is worth saying that the abbreviated characters and the reversed order (right-left) of on this stamp were not characteristics of the Konstamonitou stamp.

The original stamp

Reversed and negativized

The translator went on to explain that the first loaf was used for the Lamb, while the second was used for the commemorations.  Unlike America, only the two loaves used for the Liturgy are cut up for antidoron.  More monks meant smaller pieces, not more loaves.  At Xenophontos, it appeared that more loaves were used for the Sunday Liturgy of our visit, probably due to the great number of both monks and pilgrims.

Sts. Dionysios and Mitrophanis House,
Little St. Anna's Skete

It was to my great surprise, several days later, to sit down to lunch at the Holy Skete only to have a prosphora set before each plate!  Before, I had only seen the cut up remains of prosphora or a few being held in reserve for the next Liturgy.  Here I had my chance to actually pocket one of these beauties, and made my plans to slip it into my cassock.  By this time on the trip, I had begun to notice that while each monstery or skete had its own style of daily bread and meal format, the prosphora remained relatively the same in shape. 

You can imagine my great sorrow when the monk across from me, noticing my great admiration for his handiwork, proceeded to break it for me so that i could 'enjoy' it with my meal.  I was haeartbroken!  The flavor was tangy as any good sourdough, and had the dense consistency of a dry dough with natural leavening.  Our guide explained to Abbot Spyridon my interest in bread, and so after the meal he provided me the two loaves seen below.  The monks explained they had an unusually large batch of bread which wouldn't make it without molding, so the abbot blessed them to be eaten with meals.  Actually, one prosphora, as dense as it is, is a meal unto itself.

This house had numerous examples of ancient prosphora stamps found on the mountain, which I was unable photograph.  If God wills that I return, I will try to photograph the skete's stamp collection.  My brief conversation at the skete revealed that they also bake in the same way Konstamonitou does.


Here are the two loaves from Sts. Dionysios and Mitrophanis house of Little St. Anna's Skete.  Notice the piercings and the configuration of the particles on the right loaf.  These are typical of Athos prosphora.


An up-close view of commemorative loaf.


A 2/3 view of the loaves for perspective.  Notice the dictinct joint between segments, yet the entire loaf is made from a single piece.  The red arrow indicates a dent left by the baker's peal and the loaf was placed in the oven after being allowed to rise.  The right side loaf has a smaller dent in the same location.  Also note the evenness of the upper portion as compared to the unevenness of the bottom portion, caused by the weight differential from the stamping process.


The Great Lavra

Our guide at the Great Lavra knew a great deal about the bakery, and was able to share some interesting facts about the monastery and its bread.  First, the monastery never refuses to give bread to anyone who asks, since they have had numerous miracles since the time of St. Athanasios the Athonite where the Theotokos Herself stepped in to avert famine for the community.  The Lavra until recently ground its own flour, using a donkey-driven millstone.  The funny part is that the monks decided to buy flour only after the donkey died, since they couldn't train a replacement!

During the Feast of the Elevation, the abbot blesses a bowl with water and flour in the katholikon, using a fragment of the True Cross.  The bowl is then left out overnight.  This becomes the starter for the coming year's prosphora.  The monk recalled one year when a baker decided not to use the new starter and tried to bake a batch with the old one.  It didn't work, and the monk had to go to the abbot and confess what he had done, since he had bowls full of dead dough.  The abbot came and blessed the dough, and almost immediately it began to rise.  It will be a long time before anyone else gets up the nerve to mess with this annual tradition.