You know, sometimes there are things in life that you run across that are just perfect.  They don’t need added embellishment or jewelry or toppings or anything to make them better, because they are just perfect in their original form.  A beautiful autumn full moon night, with clear skies and a slight wind bringing a touch of chill to the air is one of those things.  No amount of lighted pumpkins or cups of cider will enhance that experience.  It’s just great like it is.

The bread at the Balzan Bakery is like that.  I, along with everyone else that lived in the student housing flats in Lija, Malta, discovered it and honestly, I can’t even remember how we first ran into the place.  I can’t imagine that it was when we were entirely in our own minds, since the place is really only open between 1am and 6am, which historically (at least among college students) is not a time when minds are completely clear, whether from alcohol, sheer lack of sleep or some combination of those two, coupled with a long night in the discos.

Balzan Bakery is so unique that I have never before nor since encountered any bakery like it.  Not even watching Bizarre Foods or No Reservations on television.  It’s at the most only a small bedroom in size.  Just big enough for the large, and I really mean, immense stone oven in the back, a large, flour-covered table in the middle and a shelf of freshly baked bread, and other sweets to the right.  No credit cards.  No checks, of course.  Just cash.  

Run by a family, which appears to include a husband and wife, the latter’s sole purpose in life seeming to be to take your money, bag your bread (as if that was necessary) and then yell at her children to get back to work, as they stop what they are doing and stare at the tall, extremely white (or sun-burnt, depending upon the night) foreigners who can’t speak more than a few words of Maltese drool over the freshly baked Maltese breads and sweets; and of course, the two boys (at least, that’s what I remember) who could barely reach the top of the large table, and were covered in flour, rolling and kneading dough all night.  In the heat, with the door open, so that air could come through.

One lone light in the tall ceiling managed to highlight everything there, as the glow from the oven beckoned you and the overwhelming smell of the yeast, salt, flour and unmistakable and indescribable Maltese water (seriously, this stuff is strange) perfectly charred on the outside and perfectly airy on the inside enticed you to come, night after night, with one sole purpose in mind:  Get more bread.

Drunk or sober, tired or wide awake, it was like a pilgrimage every time that we went.  Like a pact among thieves, we would conspire in the evenings, sitting by the pool, or in unit #207, to gather a handful of us together and wander over there.  Always dreaming of the bread loaves that we would hopefully get our hands on.  Oh sure, we could buy the same type of bread loaves in the market, but these were just ethereal.  As if the ingredients that this family used or the oven they employed or the techniques that they used just somehow elevated their bread to another level altogether.

There was another understanding, too:  Everyone went with the intention of buying at least two loaves of bread.  If you could that much.  Sometimes, you would go with four people and they would have only four loaves of bread left.  Those were depressing nights.  Why two, you ask?  One was definitely for bringing home, so that the next day you would have it for breakfast, spread with newly discovered Laughing Cow cheese and strong black tea (to help alleviate the hangover that you might be experiencing) or for lunch / dinner, dipped in pure olive oil and a little salt.  The other loaf, that was the best one.  That was the one that you tore into right away after you gave the mother your coins.  It was the one that burned your fingers as you were too eager to bite into it to wait for it to cool, since it had inevitably just been pulled from the stone oven.  You would see the char bits on your fingers, tiny, like dust, and tear off a piece, exposing the airy pockets that characterize Maltese bread, and on the walk home, proceed to devour it, heedless of the fact that it was really the size of a normal loaf of bread, but heavier, denser.  You didn’t care.  No one did.  It was too perfect.  No toppings, no spreads, nothing.  Sure, we added those later, but only because it was habit, or the options were there.  But really, nothing truly made it any better.  It was perfect just in that form.  So perfect that, as you stepped back into your flat, you would still be happily be licking the last flecks of flour and char that has stuck to your fingers as you tore into the loaf, piece by delicious piece.

I still dream of that bread.  I have tried to make it here, but as people in NY think about their pizza not being able to be recreated anywhere else, because the water in NY was somehow different, I realize that there was just something magical about that particular bread that cannot be replicated anywhere else.  Not really.  Not even close.

And when I went back to Malta the second time and found the bakery again, a few years later, and tried it.  Was it the same?  Did the memories live up to reality?  Well, the only difference was that now, the boys were better able to knead the dough, having grown tall enough to reach it more easily.  But otherwise, it was exactly the same.  And yes, I still bought two loaves.  And yes, I burned my fingers.  But sometimes, you have to make small sacrifices to experience heaven, don’t you?

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