It’s been a couple of weeks since my return from The Rye Baker Baltic Rye Tour 2018 – enough time for the impressions and memories to mellow and integrate and for me to gain some perspective on a whirlwind of sights, sounds, tastes and human interactions. In all, we were 18; most of us dedicated bread nerds, both professionals and home bakers, united in our desire to experience rye on its home turf and hungry to expand our knowledge of the unruly grain.
To say the tour was a success would be an understatement; it was a home run, although not quite a grand-slam. Inevitably, there were some scheduling glitches, such as sitting down to two super-bountiful Latgalian feasts (Latvian white lightning included) within 3 hours of each other, and a two-hour spa/sauna session that didn’t happen because we spent more time at a bakery than planned.
I think that Larry Lowary, one of our hardy and widely-traveled companions, spoke for the group when he wrote, “I’ll add my thanks (and appreciation) to all of you for a wonderful, wonderful trip. I’ve never taken a group tour and despite my occasional (likely unwarranted) grumblings, found it great. I’ve met an amazing group of men and women interested in so many things.”
The tour went so well, in fact, that I’m gonna do it again next year.
Here’s a snapshot of what we saw, experienced and tasted:
In the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, rye bread is more than the mainstay of traditional Nordic and Baltic diets; it’s a divine gift and a source of national identity. Rye bread, Finnish Bakers Association Executive Director Mika Väyrynin told us, has official standing as Finland’s national food. In Latvia, Aglona Bread Museum director Vija Kudiņa described rye bread’s iconic status. “Bread,” she said, “is a blessing from God: if it falls on the floor, we pick it up and kiss it; if one turns a loaf upside down, bad luck will surely follow.” And so we ate, with appreciation and reverence.
Our itinerary took us not just to the usual tourist sites – the skeletons of medieval castles at Raseborg and Turaida, the natural splendors of Västerby and Gauja Nature Preserve, the baroque grandeur of Rundāle Palace and the cultural and gustatory delights of Helsinki and Riga – but also to farms, mills and bakeries where we experienced firsthand the methods, techniques and mindsets that make Finnish and Latvian rye breads among the best in the world.
In Helsinki, Teemu Aura and Markus Huskainen, founder-owners of Patisserie Teemu & Markus, welcomed us into their commissary for a tour and a sampling of pulla – traditional Finnish sweet rolls – and korvapuusti – Finland’s unique take on cinnamon buns. For me, the highlight was their riihiruisleipä , the intensely flavored bread built on smoked rye flour that’s fire-dried during the long, dark Finnish winters.
Where Helsinki is dominated by its proximity to the Baltic Sea, rural Finland reveals a different character. On our way west, we drove through miles and miles of mixed birch and conifer forest, punctuated now and then by modest cottages, small businesses and an endless progression of “Moose Crossing” signs.
In Bollstad, on Finland’s southwestern coast (the Archipelago), Olle Lindholm of Backers Baker AB put us to work making hapanleipää, the familiar doughnut-shaped flat loaves that are stored on poles hung from the ceiling. In Raseborg, Niklas Näsman, head baker and grandson of the founder of Wi-Box Bageri, let us sample his malla leipää (malt rye), which he bakes twice – the second time wrapped in paper-lined aluminum foil. In Tammisaari, Anna Alm, 10th generation owner of Mörby Gård, an organic farm that’s been in operation since the 1300s, took us into her fields to show us at firsthand her rye, wheat and cattle operation. A bag of her rye flour came back home with me.
In Latvia, new experiences piled one on top of the other, in a flood that stimulated my senses to the point of near-overload. At Lāči (lah-chee) Bakery, in Liepāja, founder-owner Normunds Skauģis gave us the grand tour, then set a wooden tub of bulk-fermented saldskāba (sweet-sour) dough in front of us, inviting each of us to shape our own loaves, just like the production workers nearby. Unlike other bakeries, Lāči breads immediately go into an 800°F wood-fired oven, where they bake for 15 seconds in to set the crust, and then get transferred to another oven to bake off for an hour at 350°F. After lunch at the Lāči cafe, our loaves were delivered to us, glazed with a solution of potato starch and shrink-wrapped for the trip back home.
In Limbaži, Valters Kanopa, head baker at Lielezers, took us through the bakery, which uses a five-zone gas-fired tunnel oven for its rye breads, and introduced us to some rye cookies and pastries he’s developing for the market.
In Ranka, Juris Paulovičs greeted us at Ķelmēni (pronounced chyel-mah-nee) farm, which he bought in 1991. In 1997, when the rye market collapsed, his wife suggested that instead of letting his grain rot, they build a bakery. Juris, his daughter Rūta and son-in-law Raitis conducted us through the bakery, answering questions and showing us every aspect of their operation before inviting us to their home for coffee and bread. Today, Juris and his children grow, mill and bake their own grain into what many Latvians consider to be their country’s finest breads, bulging bags of which were given to each of us as we left the farm.
Rye bread of extraordinary quality was everywhere. At our hotel breakfasts – themselves offering mind-boggling assortments of local cheeses, smoked meats and fish, eggs, vegetables, cereals, pastries and almost anything else imaginable – intensely flavorful rye bread of consistently high quality was a featured player. At lunch and dinner, more of same. At Folkklubs Ala, a cellar cabaret in Riga’s Old Town, garlic rye sticks were the preferred beer snack. In the restaurants and guesthouses where we ate, rye bread was incorporated into a variety of desserts, from parfaits (see below) to cheesecake.
Wherever we went, the breads reflected local tastes and regional cultures. In Helsinki, they were satisfyingly sour and nutty; on the Archipelago, where the culture has a strong Swedish flavor, the breads were sweet and often contained dried berries – and, at Svartå Manor’s superb restaurant, a sprinkling of chili flakes (!!!). In Latvia, the breads were dense and sweet-sour, with hints of caraway and anise. Some held minute orange flakes of shredded carrot; others were dark, moist and rustic, with flavors assertive enough to complement the cured meats and cheeses typical of the Latvian diet.
For a rye lover like me, our journey was 12 days of heaven – and more, if you count the 5 kilos of bread I brought back with me (plus several kilos of rye flour) and continue to feast on.
One of my favorite rye dishes was this traditional Latvian dessert, rūpjmaizes kārtojums, a parfait of sweetened rye bread, berry preserves and whipped cream – a simple yet elegant complement to its largely meat-and-potatoes cuisine.
To make it, soak 2-3 cups of stale rye crumbs in a mixture of 1/2 cup/115 ml each of simple syrup and rum for at least an hour. (For a nonalcoholic alternative, use 1/2 cup of water plus 1 Tbs of rum flavoring). In a glass, alternate layers of the soaked rye, berry preserves (I prefer lingonberry) and sweetened whipped cream. Easy and oh, so good!