My Citizens, there is no question whatsoever that to the always palatable TFD, there is nothing better than a slice of excellent homemade bread! Few regions of the world are as fond of rye bread as the Baltics, where Lithuania and Latvia vie for the prize of best rye bread ever! Yes, I am well aware that Finnish rye bread is the stuff of legend, that Jewish rye bread is a necessity on any decent meat sandwich and that many other countries also do excellent Rye.
TFD remains neutral in the bread wars – all Rye bread is toothsome and delicious in my magnanimous opinion!
Still, only in Latvia is rye bread considered to be – quite literally – holy and only in Latvia are the pagan old ways still preserved in their bread baking. Don’t believe me? Read on!
On the worthwhile blog latvianeats.com it is stated that:
Rye bread (rupjmaize, rudzu maize) always has been a staple of the Latvian diet. Traditionally, Latvians ate whatever was available during the season – cereals, legumes and root vegetables, meat and dairy. Rye and barley was available all year round, thus becoming the most important source of subsistence (wheat was considered to be a delicacy). It was believed that while there was rye bread on the table, no one would go hungry.
Rye has been grown in Latvia for more than 1200 years, and rye bread became common more than a thousand years ago. Similarly to Scandinavian and Slavic traditions, rye bread was baked from leavened dough and was considered to be more nutritious and tastier than barley bread. In the late 19th century sourdough bread gained popularity, but it was mainly baked for celebrations as it was more time consuming.
Rye bread was eaten at every meal, however, it was not served with porridge (another staple). Good bread was the pride and joy of every hostess, and no effort was spared when baking the bread. During the harvest, the owner of the house would bake the first batch of bread to check the quality of new flour, how well it rises and sticks. The sower of rye would be offered the first bite of the bread to celebrate his effort, only then the baker and the rest of the family would eat.
Other, still observed, customs dictate:
– If the bread is accidentally dropped, it must be immediately picked up and kissed.
– Do not wipe breadcrumbs on the floor, otherwise God will not place more bread on the table.
– Do not place the bread bottom side up, otherwise the family will experience hunger.
As further elucidated on laci.lv:
- Originally, bread was baked only at home in Latvia.
- In the 14th– 15th century, the first bakeries appeared in towns and only men worked in the bakeries.
- Everything changed in 1940, when Soviet power entered Latvia. They started to manufacture the bread in factories, the quality didn’t matter, the emphasis was put on catering to the people.
- In 1980, the traditional bread-baking traditions were restored. They started baking collective farm bread.
- “Lāči” restored the ancient bread-baking traditions, it was possible to buy the bread only in the market “below the counter”.
- When Latvians speak about the national identity of their land, nothing can characterize it better that a loaf of rye-bread. Bread symbolizes, of course the welfare of a person also elsewhere in the world, but for Latvians it symbolizes also the folklore, traditions and culture.
- Rye and barley are the most ancient crop in our geographic position, that’s why they are also the most suitable for our harsh northern nature.
- Wheat spread later in Latvia but the land of different regions has never yielded and still doesn’t yield equally rich harvest – tables in Zemgale have always been richer than the one in fishermen huts.
- Rye-bread is baked on every Latvian farm and also nowadays a real rye-bread is baked according to ancient recipes. Bread in Latvian cuisine has always been a main course. Bread for a Latvian has also a cultural value – no other meal starting from making a dough to putting a loaf on the table has been wrapped with so many beliefs and rites. Primitive in its look and taste – rye-bread is a symbol of the Latvian nation.
Latvian bread traditions are rich and profound! By way of example, just in the region of Vidzeme alone, these are unique traditions:
- People in Vidzeme say that all paths in yard should be clean, so that the Happiness would see where it goes and would not fall. The path to the barn where flour for baking bread is usually stored should be particularly clean. It is stored in a box with a cover – there is grain in one box, flour in another one, fine flour is kept in a sack. People in Vidzeme usually used this flour for baking a flat cake and it was usually baked on Saturdays. The ready rye bread is put in a hod and covered with a bread cloth.
- Green cabbage leaves are laid under a flat bread when it is ready. In winter cabbage leaves are replaced with maple leaves. Flat bread and rye bread gains a particularly nice aroma from maple leaves.
- A “spike” is drawn on bread by fingers before baking it.
- Flat bread is eaten with butter, cottage cheese and milk.
- If bread falls on the ground, it should be kissed.
- Before a loaf is cut the Cross is drawn over it, then an end is cut off and kissed.
- When the first bread was baked from the new rye harvest, one “Good Luck” loaf is placed in the corn-bin. Only the landlord and landlady should eat it to ensure that there is always enough bread at home.
- Everybody keeps total silence when eating new bread. Prior to eating bread usually a verse is cited.
- “God, give us satiety and peace! Bear’s strength, mosquito’s intestine, lightness of hop…” Then eaters would be strong as a bear, they would eat little as a mosquito and be light as a hop.
Latvian bakers also uniquely incorporate “bread signs” in their handiwork, which as the graphic below shows are unique to micro-regions all over the country!
- A sign was pressed on the longish loaf with one’s fingers or the side of a palm. Most often it was a cross, inclined cross or lines.
- A nice note was from Lutrini about Kurzeme crossing cross – sign of Mara. First, the usual cross is pressed on the loaf with the side of the palm. When pressing the first line, one says – May it not burn, when crossing the second – May it not remain raw, then all four are crossed with a finger and it is said – There will be enough for the poor! There will be enough for the ones on the way! There will be bread for the kids! There will be enough for ourselves!
- Women in Vidzeme have drawn also a pine needle or ear and it was called a fire sign. The inclined cross drawn with four fingers is original.
- People in Zemgale have a simple inclined cross.
- In Latgale – a cross.
- During the Christmas, the festive loafs were blessed by drawing a sun sign or eight-line cross one them. Notches were pressed on the side so that the bread doesn’t crack when baking.
Citizens, you now know how sacred a thing Latvian rye bread is – now let’s get you making it! 😀 I found this recipe quite a while ago online and I use it almost verbatim – my only tweak is to use Kefir – preferably Russian Kefir – in place of yogurt. You can buy Russian Kefir here. Like all good rye bread, this uses leftover dough in its preparation, so be sure and save the dough scraps after you’ve made it. This is a bread for the ages – I know you will love it!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
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