Bread Hot Off the Stones

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 30, 2006

TEHRAN

At noon, both lines reach all the way back to the bakery door, past the bags of flour that the customers avoid brushing up against lest their dark winter coats turn as white as the cheap tile walls.

The line on the right is for people who want just a single sheet of bread. Those on the left wait longer, chatting to pass the time it takes to assemble a whole sheaf of sangak , the flat bread named for the pebbles it bakes upon.

Taken from the beds of rivers south of Tehran, the stones now lie glowing in the great oven that takes up the whole back of Sayyed Hasan Mohseni's bakery, two steps down from the customers who watch the sangak being made.

The work area takes up almost half the shop, a large, clear space being necessary to accommodate the sweeping arcs of the long-handled tools the three bakers wield as they move the dough into the oven and, five minutes later, take it out as bread.

"They're small," says a woman at the head of the left-hand line who has just been handed her sheets of bread. "Why aren't they as big as they were?"

She curls her lip as she shuffles through the four long, brown, irregularly shaped sheets, just cool enough to hold in a bare hand. She stands not at a counter but at a steel-frame table with a top made of steel mesh, because when the bread comes out of the oven, a few pebbles come out with it, stuck to the crispier bits.

At times, the only sounds in the shop are the dull roar of the propane fire and the clatter of stones falling to the concrete floor through the mesh as a customer brushes the gravel from his bread.

"Don't get too close to that," a mother tells a boy of 4. "Hot stones will fall on your hand."

Mohseni, a stocky man with a cheerful bearing and graying beard, hands a sheet of bread to a man in the line for singles. "It's thick," the man says. "I want it thinner."

Mohseni goes back to the oven. It'll take a minute to get him another one.

At a counter hugging the left wall, a slender young man named Roohollah Sharifi reaches into a vat and, with both hands, pulls out an oval of dough. He pivots, then lays it in the center of a long-handled spatula, the dough landing an instant after the assistant standing at his right has flicked a handful of sesame seeds onto the walnut surface.

Sharifi spreads the dough evenly across the wood, then assumes the posture of a concert pianist, the fingers of both his hands dangling over it. In the beat he hesitates, the assistant flicks another handful of sesame onto the dough. Then Sharifi begins to play, poking the dough with his fingertips from top to bottom, creating the ridges and wee holes that will crisp first in the 800-degree oven.

The next motion is a flourish. Sharifi lifts the spatula by its 10-foot pole, steps to the arched mouth of the oven and peers in. He sees a kind of hillside, the pebbles piled higher toward the back, where several loaves are already baking. Sharifi spies a vacant patch and in a single fluid motion pours the dough onto the searing stones, stretching it to its signature length as it falls.

Then he steps back, sets the spatula back in its cradle and starts again. It's 1:15 p.m. His workday, which started at 5, has another eight hours to go.

At 1:30, while the bakers sip tea, Mohseni checks a covered pot tucked beside the propane gas jet where it will cook all day. Man does not live by bread alone. "Bakers' stew is famous," he says.

Half an hour later, the customers have thinned to a handful, but the bakers keep at it. The bread that doesn't sell immediately is stuck on a row of nails beside the oven, to hang like shingles.

"It looks like a map of the United States," says Hossein Jafari, sizing up a sheet of sangak on the wall. Jafari, a salesman who deals in cars next door, says he majored in geography in college.

Someone takes the bread down, eats for a while, puts it back on the wall. Jafari looks again. "It looks like the Strait of Hormuz," he says.


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