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Kritharokouloura, a traditional Cretan barley-based paximadi, reflects the island’s morphology and historic traditions, serving as a warm gesture to guests.

Close-up of round Greek ‘Kritharokouloura’ barley-based dry breads and a tomato between them

If you study the morphology of the island of Crete, you will understand why the barley-based paximadi has such an important place in the Cretan diet: given that Crete has few plains and many mountains, it was natural for the cultivation of barley to be widespread, as it grows better in mountainous areas.

At past times, Cretans were either farmers, shepherds, or fishermen, and these occupations forced them to be absent from their homes for extended periods of time. Housewives sometimes kneaded their bread, and from that they made paximadi so that those leaving home to work could take with them. What was a necessity turned into the important tradition of making paximadi, consisting not only of barley but also of wheat or a mixture of barley and wheat or “eftazimo”, a mixture of white flour with wholegrain flour, barley, chickpea flour, and various spices and herbs.

The paximadi are distinguished by their round shape as kouloura, a barley paximadi, kritharokouloures, either with or without a hole in the center. In some villages of the Rethymnon area, the kouloura without a hole is called a tampakiera, meaning cigarette-box.

By custom, it is considered a sign of courtesy to the guest, who is offered the kouloura’s spongiest upper part, which is sliced off and baked as a paximadi. This piece is called the panokafkalo (upper carapace) which signifies to the guest that he/she is welcome. If no upper part of the kouloura is available, care is taken not to offer the guest the hard katokafkalo (lower carapace), because that would suggest that his/her presence is not desired.

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