My Citizens! As the most private of Generalissimos (#armypun), I am very reticent about sharing details of my private life – however, in the interests of oversharing, I shall now offer you a most intimate glimpse into my happiest and certainly most eventful few days! My honeymoon nearly 10 years ago to Iceland was a truly unmatched experience – I took my new bride in January during the depths of the Nordic Winter to see the Northern Lights! It was during this sojourn that we experienced all too intimately the unique joys of the legendary Icelandic dark bread – rúgbrauð (roogbrayth).
We discovered this unassuming small loaf of sweet dark bread at the local supermarket, where after one taste I was instantly captivated! Rúgbrauð is small, only the dimensions of a medium-sized paperback book. Thinking nothing of it, I scarfed down the entire loaf over dinner! A few hours later, my new bride and I settled in to spend our first full night together in wedded bliss…
…It did not go entirely to plan.
What I didn’t know at the time was the nickname for rúgbrauð amongst in-the-know Icelanders. It’s hverabrauð…in English, this roughly translates to “thunder bread”.
How it acquired this evocative and oh-so-accurate monicker is due to the fact that there is a TON OF FIBER in each tiny loaf of rúgbrauð thanks to the use of dark rye flour. It’s so sweet and soft and SMALL, I innocently ate the whole thing blissfully ignorant of the intestinal horror to come. The entire beginning-to-end experience is perhaps best communicated via emoji:
Not how a man wants to spend his wedding night – but looking back, it IS rather funny although my wife still shudders every time I share this tale of gastric woe. Now – all that said, if you simply limit yourself to a few slices of rúgbrauð, you’ll be perfectly fine and it is beyond delicious – I just wish it came with a warning sticker for ignorant tourists! My many Icelandic friends always laugh hysterically when I share this with them – they are a darkly humorous people who like me enjoy a decent bit of schadenfreude.
As noted on icelandfoodcentre.com:
It’s good, it’s sweet, it’s there on the side, never the main ingredient. Always the bass player, never the singer. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. You get the idea. Rúgbrauð is a popular bread to eat with other food, it’s sweetness counters sour, smoked or bland food. It can also be a vessel for sliced smoked lamb or pickled herring.
Through the centuries rúgbrauð has been the most popular bread in Iceland. Why? Because the rye grains were cheap. We didn’t have any rising agent, so all rúgbrauð were made from sourdough. Before it was cool. Sourdough is of course when the dough is naturally fermented and then a pinch of the dough is used to make the next loaf.
Households didn’t have ovens until the start of the 20th-century, so until then it was cooked in pots over stove embers from the evenings cooking. Sugar wasn’t really used or any other sweeteners – instead, it relied on the low heat and long baking time to produce the sweetness. With the invention of the electric oven and the availability of rising agents, people have been using sugar or syrup to shorten the baking time. In just a few decades, everyone starting using sugar in their rye bread.
Since the turn of the last century, the popularity of rye bread has declined. This is evident in the annual import of rye around the year 1900: somewhere between 40-60 kilograms per person. Today it’s only about 3 kilograms per person. White processed flour rules Iceland now, I’m afraid.
You’d think a rye bread would be healthy, right? Well, not rúgbrauð. It’s very sweet with a helluva lot of sugar in it. Lyle’s Golden Syrup to be precise. It has some whole wheat or all-purpose flour so it’s not all rye, despite the title. It has some salty salt. It has some bicarbonate of soda for the rise unless you make a sourdough, and then some súrmjólk or AB milk. What’s a súrmjólk, you ask? it means sour milk. It’s a thick sour milk. AB milk is sort of like súrmjólk but soured with probiotic bacterias by the name of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.
As a TFD side note, there are MANY types of dairy products produced in Iceland – this interesting article goes into them in detail.
Now, as we are going for a full traditional implementation of this bread: be advised that in Iceland, that means slow-cooking in the boiling steam from a geothermal vent! Yes, dökkt rúgbrauð is traditionally baked in the ground using natural steam heat! To mimic this cooking method at home, the bread is cooked at a low temperature for an unusually long time, at least 7 ½ hours and sometimes up to 10! Don’t be tempted to open the oven and peel off the foil while this is baking. It is meant to steam, and if you check on it while baking then all of the steam will be released. If you’re worried that it won’t be done, just bake it a little longer.
Spread with some of the best butter on Earth – from the pristine cows of Iceland, of course! You can buy Icelandic butter here. If unavailable, use Kerry brand Irish butter instead. You will also need a surprising non-native Icelandic product to make rúgbrauð – Lyle’s Golden Syrup from the UK!
Somehow, probably from British whalers stopping over in Iceland in the 19th century, this canned sweetness of the Gods became a staple in Icelandic cooking. You can buy it here. Proper dark rye flour can be purchased here and blackstrap molasses (an optional TFD addition, but helps to achieve the right color) can be bought here. Since the soured cultured milk used to make this in Iceland isn’t available on these shores, I specify a good brand of cow milk kefir instead.
Citizens, despite my unfortunate first meeting with rúgbrauð, please do not let that put you off from trying this delectable treat – just don’t eat the entire loaf in one sitting and you’ll be charmed by the unique delights of this Icelandic staple! Try it thickly spread with butter and a slice of smoked salmon for a truly unmatched starter! It is also fantastic with the curried, creamy and cheesy fish stew known as plokkfiskur.
Battle on – the Generalissimo