The true essence of traditional bread making in Mykonos lies in the crafting of high quality ingredients and using traditional techniques. This is exactly how the Gioras Wood Bakery has operated for the past 200 years. Located in a medieval settlement right in the heart of Mykonos Town or Chora, Gioras Wood Bakery remains one of the last bakeries in the Cycladic islands that uses a wood fired oven to bake bread. It is known as the “Parthenon of all Greek wood bakeries.” The building where the bakery is located is the second oldest building on the island, built after the Church of Panagia Paraportiani, and was handmade from materials such as stone, hay and mud.
We sat down with Cloe Papaioannou whose husband George Vamvakouris has inherited his artisan bread making techniques from his grandfather. Even in the face of modern baking techniques, George and Cloe are dedicated to keeping their family bread making tradition alive.
The Gioras Wood Bakery has been on the island since 1420, your family has been running it for the past 200 years. Can you tell us how your family got involved in this business?
My husband’s great grandfather was one of the wealthiest people in Mykonos and when the family relocated from Syros, he had bought the whole area of Lakka the neighborhood where the windmills are located. In the old days the windmills were used to grain wheat and supplied flour to the majority of wood bakeries which existed back then. One of his sons chose to become a baker — he was George’s grandfather.
From a young age, George had spent his days in the bakery watching his grandfather craft bread. Back then, observing was pretty much the only way to learn. Managing temperature in a wood oven only comes with experience as there is no temperature meter. To succeed in baking one must know how to judge by the color of the grain, and this only comes from experience.
George is the fourth generation of the bread makers and is unfortunately the last one from his family who knows the traditional bread making techniques. Despite the numerous efforts to encourage the new generation to continue the legacy, the right candidate is still wanted! Cloe and George are hopeful that someone will show interest in learning about this bread making craft — which is very close to becoming extinct.
How have you managed to keep the tradition running until this day?
It all comes down to the Greek word meraki, an untranslatable word that means doing something with your soul and dedication. It is about giving a part of yourself to do what you love. It requires a positive attitude and stubbornness to keep the tradition alive especially when the lifestyle and trends in Mykonos keep on evolving. George is 60 years old and he works extremely hard. There are days that he is in the bakery as early as 2:00 a.m.
One hundred years ago or so the bakery used to operate incognito with its windows and doors sealed off — in order to protect the bread from being stolen by the pirates who would raid the island’s shores on a regular basis.
The bread was produced every 15 days and was then divided between Ano Mera and other local villages. Donkeys carrying a Mykonian wood known as frigana, a dry type of shrub which is now extinct – its smell reminds you of oregano – would come in with their owners and park on the side street outside the bakery. The local ladies had worked out a barter program. They would trade the wood and eggs for bread. They would line up outside the bakery waiting for their turn to bake the bread. The baker would provide them with a special mother dough, a pre-ferment used for bread making and the flour. The Mykonian community appreciated this gesture and up to this day support the efforts of Gioras Wood Bakery.
Do you believe that people’s tastes in bread and baked goods have changed a lot in the past 200 years?
Very much! Although Greece is a country which is well known for the Mediterranean diet, there is an increase in the consumption of proteins and ready made goods. In our bakery we use fresh products such as herbs, cheese and eggs which we purchase from the local community. For example, in some of our pie fillings we use tirovolia a cheese which is prepared by the housewives in Mykonos. We like to get the local community involved, we have Andrianna and Eleni coming by the bakery with their baskets filled with freshly picked greens such as dill, fennel and so forth. Due to the crisis, a lot of people have lost their jobs on the island and as a result they have also turned to home production. To give you an example they make Greek biscuits called koulourakia. We believe in keeping the local tradition or paradosi of making dry biscuits alive. You know, up until the 1970s there were no fridges so foods then had to be preserved differently.
What is your specialty at Gioras Wood Bakery?
Amigdalota is our almond dessert that has gained quite a reputation. We have many visitors coming from the cruise ships that specifically visit us to try our famous dessert.
We also make soumada which is an almond water drink. The almond cookies that we make are round, gluten free, made with egg whites, powdered sugar and plenty of almond paste. You must try them!
Want to learn more about the traditional bread making in Mykonos? Start your morning at Gioras Wood Bakery. George and Cloe will happily introduce you to their family tradition and have you try their unique specialties.
We love their love of tradition. Don’t you?