Functions and Production Methods of Pileki and Cornbread

The corn that has been harvested at the end of the tenth month is put aside for a day or two. They are then peeled and the kernels are separated. This is done by hand. The corn kernels, which are semi-dry because they have been put aside for a while, are peeled relatively easily and put under the sun to completely dry. They are taken to the water mill when they are fully dry and hard, are milled very finely for muhlama[1] and medium-fine for bread.

The reason why bread flour isn’t milled as finely is to allow kneading while making a dough; because corn flour is kneaded with hot water. You cannot knead if your flour is too fine. Even if you can, this bread would be too tough to eat after baking. This is why it is milled into a medium-fine flour for bread. You have to sift the flour through a thick sieve afterwards. This is such an important process in the area that there is a saying that goes “If you don’t have a sieve at home, ask for it from seven other houses”.

The corn flour which is milled to a medium fineness, or bread making flour in other words, which has been sifted is then kneaded carefully with salt and ‘boiled water’ for a long period of 30 minutes with a wooden ladle in a wooden pot. The kneading process is just as important as the sifting and it has produced its own terminology. This style of kneading carefully for a long period is called ‘breaking the bones of the dough’. A wooden spoon is used instead of kneading by hand because the water is almost boiling hot; one cannot safely touch it and needs to use a tool for mixing. In the meanwhile, it is important to mention the ingredients of this dough because wheat flour or clotted cream is often added to the dough during kneading these days. These ingredients naturally enrich the dough while also functioning as yeast, allowing the unleavened bread to rise up and become flavorful. In addition to this, we also see soybean flour in today’s recipes as well. Soybean, also called ‘honeyed bean’, started being included in the ingredients of the corn bread during the famine period in the area. The beans grown in the area have been used in their entirety or in part in the recipe when corn is not available, and this tradition still continues today.

Back to the recipe; the thoroughly mixed and kneaded dough is put on the pre-heated and oiled ‘pileki’ pot. Sometimes leaves are put on the bottom of the pileki instead of oiling it. Naturally, butter is the fat of choice and local leaves of ‘karalahana’ chard or cherry laurel are used. The top of the dough is smoothed out with a wet ladle or by hand after it is put on the pileki, fitting it on the stove, and cut into pieces with a wet knife. The pileki is put on embers of wood fire and is covered with a sheet iron lid called ‘sac’, which is then covered with strong embers.

The general recipe for the cornbread, which is a local product of the traditional Black Sea cuisine, is similar in the entirety of this region that dominates the northern coast of Turkey. The recipe shared above belongs to Rize’s Hemşin district; more specifically its Yeniköy Neighbourhood[2]. Rize is a coastal city that is located in the Eastern side of the Black Sea region; in the Northeastern part of Turkey that almost borders Georgia. Its cuisine embodies elements of Georgian and Greek culinary traditions. These traditions do not only feature dishes and ingredients but also kitchen tools and techniques. The ‘pileki’ pot mentioned above is one of these. Its etymology goes back to the Italian word ‘placca’, which was recorded in the 17th century as meaning ‘flat stone’[3]; a description that fits pileki as well.

Pileki is a cooking tool carved out of a rather soft stone excavated from the Pileki Cave, located between Rize’s Taşhane, Köşklü and Çiftlik villages in the İyidere district. The stone that comes from this cave is also called ‘pileki’ stone. In addition to corn bread, it is known that pileki pot is also used while making another local dish called ‘hamsikoli’ and as a stew pot in the past. Pileki, which is known with similar pronunciations in the entirety of the Eastern Black Sea and towards its south, is also a unique cooking method used in making of the corn bread.

The pileki production, which starts with the cutting of the suitable stones in the volcanic cave, can be described in two steps: The cutting of the suitable pieces in the cave, and processing them after bringing them outside. Traditionally, 15-20 work in this process during the winter months when farming jobs are on hold. Some of them cut and bring out the stone while others carved the products. However, both these jobs are done by the same people these days.

The Pileki Cave consists of galleries that are shaped like tunnels, and only a professional can cut and process the right piece of stone. Because not every bit of stone is suitable for making the pileki and only the masters of this job can tell one from the other. The stone in question must be a little soft; it shouldn’t have hard bits called ‘bastard stones’. This way, the pileki stone can handle pressure and won’t break while being carved and won’t crack while cooking. However, it isn’t always easy to tell whether a chosen piece is suitable with a single glance. That is why there are half-processed stones left in the cave.

The excavation is done using a pointed tool called ‘rimit’ which looks similar to a hammer. First an estimated circle is drawn on a cave wall where the stone will be retrieved from. Then, that bit is cut out of the wall using ‘rimit’ which is also sometimes called ‘sivri’ (sharp). Rimit is also used to carve the inside of the stone. Following this, another brush-shaped sharp tool called ‘külünk’ / ‘küllük’ is used to smooth out the inside. These steps are important, because the stone can crack if its outside is processed first. That’s why the masters smooth out the inside first. Of course, the outside doesn’t need any smoothing depending on choice. The final step is the master’s signature!

Pileki, concave in shape, usually comes in five sizes which are measured in ‘kotluk’. The dictionary definition of kot is: A wooden measure that weigh about seven kilograms[4]. The thickness of the pileki, called its ‘meat’ changes according to its kotluk, it increases in 1-1.5 cm increments. Traditionally, the pileki is seasoned with olive oil on the inside and outside before use, and then put on fire for about 10 minutes. The pileki absorbs the oil during this process.

On the other hand, pileki is a baking technique used for making bread. It is possible to see similar methods in other regions of Turkey. However, these are baked using an iron sheet ‘sac’ instead of pileki while the firing method is the same.

The Municipality of Rize is working on the protection of Pileki Cave and reutilising pileki, which has been almost forgotten due to the contemporary life and kitchen conditions. That way, this almost-forgotten tool and technique will find its place in household and professional kitchens[5].

Sabri Uzun, the last pileki master. Born in the Çiftlik Village of İyidere in 1937. He started in this profession at the age of 14-15 and cut stones in the cave for 25-30 years. He hasn’t been working on this for the past 5-6 years. He didn’t train any apprentices due to the impracticality of pileki in our day and age.
Refigül-Sabri Uzun have been married for 63 years. They were born in Çiftlik and still live there.

[1] Muhlama: This is a local dish from the Eastern Black Sea region. It is made with corn flour and a local cheese called ‘minci’. It is commonly known as a breakfast dish but can be eaten during any meal. It is best accompanied by tea. In summary, the recipe is as such: Melt the butter, add and cook the corn flour, add a small amount of water when the flour turns golden brown, and then add the minci cheese. Local string cheese can also be used instead of minci depending on the region.

[2] My source is Reyhane Bozkurt (1968), who passed on the information as she learnt it from her elders, especially her grandmother Rahime Saatçi.

[3] https://ozhanozturk.com/2017/08/29/karadenizde-geleneksel-ekmek-pisirme-tasi-pileki/ Accessed: 18 October 2021.

[4] Özhan Öztürk, Karadeniz Ansiklopedik Sözlük, Book II, Heyamola Publishing, First Edition, March 2005, Istanbul, p.712.

[5] Bu yazı için gerekli araştırmayı yapmamda yardımcı olan Rize Belediyesi’ne, Başkan Yardımcısı Kemal Genç ve Serpil Civelek’e, ilk günden itibaren konu hakkında kılavuzluk eden ve tüm bilgisini benimle paylaşan Muammer Mete’ye (1952, İyidere, Rize) ve tüm bu çalışmaya vesile olan Gökmen Sözen’e çok teşekkür ederim.

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