My Citizens – one of the true advantages of having a digital ‘footprint’ is that it becomes easily possible to navigate one’s journey through the shifting sands of time via services like Facebook and Twitter. They can easily remind you of what happened on a particular day at any point across your life (at least from when you joined those services, anyway). Today, Facebook reminded me that it is one year to the day since I was last in one of my favorite cities in the world – Oulu, Finland!
As noted in my resurfaced Facebook post (made right before COVID-19 shut my travel down):
A classic Sámi breakfast here in Oulu, Finland – wherein I discovered a perfect meal!
The reindeer blood sausage was a revelation – not bloody tasting or gamy in the least and the dried nettle rye bread is quite literally the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life!
After much cajoling, the staff gave me the bakery name – I SHALL NOT REST until this recipe is shared and preserved for eternity!
Finnish yogurt is perhaps the best in the world with a unique texture and an unmatched flavor. The blueberries are wild and were gathered here in the local forest outside Oulu.
The Alderwood-smoked cheese was a revelation, the ham (no pic) was mild and delicious. Saccharine (no longer legal in the U.S.) is my preferred diabetic sweetener, the butter here is off-the-hook and the juice was pressed this morning from berries gathered a few hours ago.
Green tea for the win with a Finnish mini Cinnamon and Cardamom Roll – known locally as Korvapuusti.
Truly a breakfast for the ages!!!
FYI – Sámi is the name of the indigenous peoples of Lapland, which stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – and let me tell you, that nettle rye bread I tasted was indeed one of the best breads I’ve EVER enjoyed! Today, it is my great privilege to teach you how to make this delicious and healthful recipe whose provenance goes back more than 1000 years in Finland – and yes, nettles have been used in recipes for ages (more on that later)!
However, before you can fully appreciate the undimmed glory that is my recipe, you should first understand how important rye bread is to the Finnish soul! As eruditely expounded on finland.fi:
Whether it’s on a table or in a proverb, rye bread has long been a cultural and nutritional cornerstone for Finns. It was also voted Finland’s national food for the centenary celebrations of the country’s independence, in 2017.
Finns have long been avid consumers of rye bread. Such is their enthusiasm for this culinary staple that they even take it with them on trips abroad.
In the summertime Finns head to their summer cottages on the mass in the weekends and during summer holidays. As a result, rural communities around the country often double in size during the warmer months, with this temporary migration giving a considerable boost to the local economies.
There is one product in particular that these city slickers enthusiastically seek out during their temporary stays that can’t be found on store shelves elsewhere.
“People are really eager to eat the local rye breads,” explains Johanna Mäkelä, professor of food culture at the University of Helsinki. “I would suspect that some of these local bakeries are surviving just by baking in the summer.”
Such enthusiasm is unsurprising. First cultivated in Finland over 2,000 years ago, rye grain’s adaptability to various soil types, coupled with its ability to ripen over the short northern summer, has long seen it a staple of the local cuisine.
“Finnish rye bread is a story of a poor country, as there were so few ingredients that were always available,” Mäkelä explains. “Water, leaven, salt and rye flour – that’s still the basic recipe. Sometimes you can also add yeast.”
Whether it’s the round limppu (loaf) originating from the eastern parts of the country, or the west’s flat disc with a hole in the middle, known as reikäleipä, Finnish full-flavoured rye bread is noticeably lighter than varieties from Germany and the Baltic Region. It is also considerably less sweet than Swedish rye bread, and is commonly enjoyed as a sandwich, dipped in soup or simply by itself, topped with a layer of butter.
Whichever way you look at it, and whatever shape it comes in, the bond that Finns share with rye bread cannot be overstated.
“If people come from a different part of Finland and move to Helsinki, they often long for the kind of bread they have eaten in their childhood,” Mäkelä explains. “Also, if you ask almost any Finn going abroad to meet expats, there are two things they would take with them: rye bread and Fazer blue-label chocolate.”
This coveted bread is even on sale at Helsinki Airport to meet demand. Here travellers can pick up a last-minute gift for their friends and family, or ensure they have enough in stock when spending time outside of the country.
Rye bread’s ubiquity over the years has seen it become deeply engrained in Finnish culture. Aside from being referenced in the national epic Kalevala, it also features prominently in paintings and proverbs from earlier ages.
Farmers once took heed that consuming rye gives one power in the wrists if hard work is required, and the grain was said to provide energising fuel for draught horses. These days, such beliefs have been replaced by scientific evidence underlining various health benefits.
“Rye has a very high fibre content,” explains Kaisa Poutanen, Research Professor from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. “Even though it’s concentrated in the outer layers of the kernels, the dietary fibre is also found in the inner parts of the grain.”
This abundant fibre directly aids the intestinal health of consumers. Not to be outdone, the grain also helps to protect from diabetes.
“When we eat rye bread, we need less insulin to control blood glucose,” Poutanen continues. “Also, cardiovascular disease is very much connected to diabetes. So, if you protect against one, you protect against the other.”
Last, but certainly not least, the satiating effect of rye bread is widely recognised as being integral for weight management.
With research continuing to uncover new health benefits, and the number of varieties on offer growing steadily, it’s safe to say that store shelves around the country will be well stocked with the national bread for many years to come.
“We Finns use rye bread to sustain ourselves and our bodies, but it is also part of our cultural identities,” Mäkelä observes. “We are keeping it in our hearts, but on the other hand we are also keeping it on our tables.”
“It’s a living tradition.”
The special leaven, sourdough, used when preparing Finnish rye bread is known as leivän juuri in Finnish, or ‘the root of the bread’.
“Many households still have their own leaven, which they inherited from previous generations,” explains VTT’s Kaisa Poutanen. “Where I live in Kuopio, a lady has leaven which is over 50 years old that she got from her mother-in-law. She is still baking with it, every week.”
The trick to preserving leaven is to ensure that some of the bread mix is left over when baking, which can then either be dried or frozen. Next time around all that needs doing is add a little water and the bacteria start to live again. And the cycle continues, ensuring flavoursome bread time and time again.
Now – Finnish rye bread comes in two basic kinds: VERY hard (virtually 100% rye flour) or soft (a mix of wheat bread flour and rye, mostly wheat). This recipe falls squarely in the soft category, which finds favor with the toothsome (but not jaw-breaking) TFD bread ideal – the addition of fresh or dried nettle leaves gives this bread a delicious savor that you will find instantly addictive! Finnish medievalist scholar Hannele Klemettilä lists a very similar recipe to my own in her seminal book ‘The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes‘ which is a fascinating read (buy it at the link).
To make this, you’ll need two different kinds of flour – malted bread flour (this is an exceptional brand) and medium white rye flour (again, here is an exceptional product). Most critical for getting that authentic Finnish rye bread flavor is to only use a sourdough starter based on Finnish yeasts or it simply isn’t the real deal – mercifully, it can be easily obtained in the United States from here. Follow the directions on the packet to kickstart your starter before you need it for this recipe!
Lastly, it is rather difficult to make nettle rye bread without nettles – if you are lucky enough to find them fresh while foraging in the Spring, by all means (CAREFULLY) gather them, wearing thick gloves. They aren’t called Stinging Nettles for nothing, after all! Once you boil them, the stingers are rendered inert and harmless – or you can just use dried nettles which is faster and perhaps even preferable for their concentrated flavor and ease-of-preparation. You can easily purchase top-quality dried nettle leaves from here.
If you aren’t familiar with nettles: they have long been part of human culinary and medical history, dating back several millennia. Though often feared and hated as a bothersome weed, it seems there are few medical problems they can’t fix.
Nettles can make hair glossy; ease eczema; treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, scurvy, worms, and pain; be sniffed to stop a nosebleed; be used as a gargle for throat and mouth infections; reduce blood pressure; drunk as a muscle relaxant during childbirth; and even act as an antidote to venomous stings from animals. Nettles taste a bit like spinach – but have twice as much iron – and have been traditionally cooked in soup, beer, tea, pudding and other dishes.
Citizens, this flavorsome recipe will make you an instant rye bread (and nettle!) convert, even if you think you never liked it before! This is a soft, tasty and evocative bread that you (or your kids) will never realize is actually supremely healthy for you – all you will know is it is delicious slathered with top-quality butter, sea salt or as a vehicle for your favorite sandwiches!
If you prefer a hearty-style rye bread rampant with manly fortitude and sans nettle, there are many to choose from representing countries such as Finland (again), Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Iceland, and Russia as well as classic Jewish-style and more! Although superb with butter, Nokkosleipä is also unspeakably delicious spread with Russian rose and rum jam for a true breakfast experience of the first order!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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