Bettaw is a traditional, Egyptian sourdough cornbread, but one that you do not see made so often today. It is one of those traditional breads, which seems to be dying out as more people eat wheat bread, especially the nice soft white rolls that you can buy from the local bread-makers.
My mother-in-law was once famous for making Bettaw. When she baked it in the clay oven, where the women here all make their bread once weekly, it could be smelled for miles around and all of the neighbours would beg for just one round! One old neighbour was given three loaves and he ate it a little at a time, everyday. When he died, his daughter was cleaning his room and found a cardboard box beneath his sofa-bed. In it was his last remaining, hidden,Bettaw loaf, as hard as a rock.
Now that we have found the last remaining corn grinding mill in Luxor and we are growing our own corn, Mother was happy to be able to make it again. However, after two tries she gave up in frustration. It just wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do, the oven was too hot…she felt dizzy etc. She became depressed and took to her bed, the oven was working against her…It has been six years since she made it last. To her it was a disaster, to me it tasted delicious; the second batch being better than the first. There was far too much emphasis on how it looked rather than on how it tasted.
I decided to do some research online to find out how to make sourdough cornbread, as trying to decipher Mother’s rather secretive info on how to make it, was risky at best. I mainly found recipes, which also included a commercial yeast and white flour; but this Bettaw was basic stuff, with nothing fancy in it. Basically, Mother took some cornmeal and added water to it; she let it sit for a few hours, then she added it to a large pan of corn and water mix with a little salt and left it to prove. When it had begun to crack on top, she took a large wooden spoon and made medium-sized loaves with it, putting some cornmeal on the bottom to stop them sticking to the oven floor. It cooked pretty much as you’d expect cornmeal to cook, hard and dry. I really couldn’t see what they were all going on about! But, it was a dying tradition so I wanted to see if I could figure it out!
First, I needed to understand the whole sourdough thing, so I made up a batch as Mother had made it. I also made a white flour batch. The following morning I inspected it, the white flour starter had lovely big orange spots of bad bacteria on the top, and smelled foul, so out that went. I started again with a jar, instead of a stainless steel bowl. I threw away the cornmeal starter because it too smelled ‘ill’ and started another one in another jar. This time I let them both sit on the counter in my hot kitchen for a few hours but then put them both in the fridge after a few hours of bubbling fermentation.
The following morning I checked them and they were still fermenting, probably because of all the power cuts we have been having thanks to this countries wonderful inefficiency! Everything else was going off in my fridge but it was perfect for my sourdough starters! I fed them both, left them out for a few hours again, and then popped them back in the fridge.
This morning I mixed up my cornmeal, salt and water and added the cornmeal starter, then left it for six hours to do its thing, whatever that was supposed to be! After six hours it had risen and was smelling sour; the top had begun to crack and I had heard Mother saying that that was when you knew it was ready. I decided to try it two ways. I put half of the mix gently in a loaf tin, and spooned loaves with the other half.
Still experimenting, I had no idea how hot the oven was supposed to be but my oven is a Chinese joke and it has taken me the three years I have been here to master it so…I just did what I normally do when making Irish soda bread. I have to be really careful as everything burns in the metal trays and loaf tins if I have it too high, so I have to keep it low, and I can’t have it so low that the bread doesn’t cook at all. A tricky business.
But they cooked. They look nothing like the traditional Bettaw but they do taste rather delicious with butter and honey, and are not dry. They also have a lovely sourdough taste I have my starter on the go so I will try letting them prove in my muffin tin next time to see how it makes a difference. I’ll also try it with less water and see if I can get it the same as mother’s, then it will look like Real Bettaw! Getting the natural yeasts to work is going to take some practice but I’ll get there. This bread is far more nutritious than the wheat flour bread, as all of the germ and bran is removed from the wheat, but it is left in the cornmeal, and we get two crops of corn a year, which also feeds the animals so a win-win for sure. I’m going to get some Hopi blue corn seeds and grow them here and see how we get on with those.
Hmmm – Blue Bettaw. Sounds interesting, and if the man who owns the corn mill decides to give it up We’ll buy it from him. It is far too valuable to lose! I’ll have to get Omar to take some photos of it next time…or I might just go with him – .