I never tire of the stories my husband shares about his childhood. When he was just ten years old, his father died unexpectedly, leaving his mother with four young children. In spite of the hardships that followed, many of my husband’s fond memories revolve around the delicious homemade foods his mother made. One of those memories was of a shepherd’s bread, and the tradition his family practiced whenever it was served. This slightly sweet bread was baked in a cast iron Dutch oven, leaving circular indentations from its lid on the top crust. Before my mother-in-law served this bread to her family, she gave their loyal border collie the first slice.
When I asked my mother-in-law for this family recipe, she included a 1976 article from Sunset magazine where I learned about its history. Her shepherd’s bread was originally baked by the Basques, people who live in a tiny region that straddles the border of Spain and France. If you want to know more, you can read about them here.
“Tending their flocks in the remote Western rangelands, Basque sheepmen had to cook for themselves, and they had to make do with a minimum of portable cooking equipment. A Dutch oven became essential for cooking hearty soups and stews — and even for baking bread. They buried the pot in a pit full of hot embers.”
“A poignant camp custom: Before serving, a herder would slash the sign of the cross on top of the loaf, then serve the first piece to his invaluable dog.”
Many years later, some Basques still bake these dome-shaped loaves of bread, but now they do so at home in their conventional ovens. The recipe my mother-in-law used was one that was supplied to Sunset magazine by Anita Mitchell. Anita won the bread-baking championship at the National Basque Festival in 1975.
To make this bread, you’ll need a 10-inch covered Dutch oven (I used my 5.5 quart Le Creuset).
(For more info, photos, and the recipe, go to PortlandPeeps.blogspot.com)