Today we start a ‘trilogy’ of the flatbreads of Norway. While there are many more, I chose three, and will cover flatbrød today, hardvafler tomorrow, and the more widely known lefse on day three.
Flatbrød (literally “flat bread” in Norwegian) is a very traditional, unleavened bread served with many types of dishes; from charcuterie to soups, porridge, and with the big Christmas meal. Made from various types of flour (barley, oats or rye being more common), water and salt, the ingredients are few but the methods of making the bread vary across the country as much as perhaps there are ways of making pasta sauces in Italy and crepe batters in France.
Once the ingredients are mixed (be sure to use a very large bowl to enable sufficient kneading), the dough is rolled out preferably in a barley type flour. One has to be careful not to use too much flour in the dough, as it will ‘shrink’ and make it difficult to roll out. The rolling out is the trickiest part that requires the most skill. To help, a large table is needed and a rolling pin with patterns in it, as the patterns will ‘grab’ the dough better than a smooth pin.
The pieces of dough start small but become large and almost transparent once they are done. The importance of a thin enough loaf is crucial for the flatbrød to become porous and perfect when baked on the griddle. For each element rolled out, a damp cloth is placed over each piece (my mom used old bed sheets!) to keep them moist and prevent them from cracking and keep the nice patterns on the surface. When ready to be baked, the individual pieces are then rolled on to the pin and placed on the takke (griddle).
The actual baking process can be equally challenging. In the old days, it was crucial to have good quality fire wood that would be dry enough and give a long lasting fire to ensure the griddle would keep an even heat throughout the entire baking process. If the griddle was too hot, the flatbrød would naturally burn or become dark brown (it is supposed to have a very light brown color when done), and while an expert baker could just feel with her hand on the griddle whether the temperature was right or not, a more inexperienced person had to test the griddle by sprinkling a bit of flour on top of the griddle. If the flour turned brown within two minutes, the temperature would be correct.
After the loaves were baked, they were placed on a rack or on a big piece of paper to cool, one on top of another, and a heavy object was placed on top of the stack so the flatbreads would stay, well – flat! In the old days, big pieces of rock were placed on top to make the loaves really tight to prevent any rats from chewing through the stacks.
In the western part of Norway, where I grew up, it was considered a poor state of affairs if households ran out of ‘flatbrød’ Basically a home was empty of food if they didn’t have reserves of flatbrød. There was a saying in Norway that went “a girl was not marriage material could she not bake flatbread, spin and weave”. Tough conditions to live by!
Why was flatbread so popular in old times? Well, for starters, it could keep forever. Women would keep flatbrød in their “stabbur” (by now folks, you should know what I mean by this word since you’ve been reading my blog religiously! ) for years, it was also made my barley and oatmeal, both wheat types commonly found in Norway. There were also varieties of flatbreads – you could make them super thin or thicker, heartier versions.
In modern Norway, you will be hard pressed to find people who actually make their own flatbrød from scratch anymore. So easily purchased in attractive packages in the stores, this labor intensive, old food tradition nearly vanished years ago. However, I’m happy to report that the flatbrød is experiencing a revival, though most households lack the “takke”, a special vessel used to bake the flatbread on. It can however, be made on top of an electric stove as well.
In the old days, days were especially reserved for baking flatbrød and these were considered days of hard labor on the farm. Most often the women baked the flatbread in the fall to last through the entire winter. I should correct myself in writing “women”, because incidentally in many homes it was the man, the head of the household, who did the actual baking of the flatbread. This was because it was the man who provided for the firewood used in the baking. The firewood was separated from the main lot of wood and stored and reserved for this special use many weeks ahead.
As mentioned previously, the dough would consist of oatmeal or barley meal, or a mixture of both. This ensured a nice and tasty flatbrød, but could be a dough that was difficult to handle should the person not have the necessary experience. For this reason, regular all purpose flour or rye flour were sometimes added into the dough. In the eastern part of Norway, one could also see pea flour added to the flatbrød.
While it is difficult to give ONE recipe for a great flatbrød, typically for the traditional barley or oat version, approximately two pounds of flour is used for every 2 ½-3 cups of water, adding 1 tsp of salt. Here’s a sample recipe:
2 lbs barley meal
3 cups hot water
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup barley meal for rolling out the dough
Mix the barley meal and salt together in a large bowl, and pour the hot water over the mix. Cool a bit and knead to a smooth, firm dough. Wrap the dough in plastic and place in the fridge until completely chilled, for a few hours or overnight. When ready to roll out, divide the dough into several small pieces (usually about 200 grams per piece for a 60 cm diameter takke). Form each piece into flat, small rounds and cover with plastic while rolling out each piece. Sprinkle flour on the baking surface and roll each piece out, starting from the middle and going out, into large, thin loaves. Roll onto the pin and place on the griddle. The piece that was facing up on the table should face down on to the griddle. Make sure to brush off excess flour, and pat the loaf across with the rolling pin to make sure it does not shrink. Bake until the surface starts to dry out, then turn it and bake until brown spots start forming. Be sure to watch the heat to avoid the loaves from burning. Continue this process until all your pieces are done. Make sure to keep the flatbrød in a dry and cool spot – humidity creates mold but if stored correctly, these delicacies can last for a very long time!