It is not quite as ancient as geological time, but rye grain goes way back. And deserves as comeback, we think, almost regardless of all the nifty innovations that will determine the future of grain-growing. While we are busy with greatness-making, our thought is at this moment, let’s not forget the grains that got us here:
By Julia Moskin
Any adventurous eater who has wandered into the woods of modern Nordic cuisine has probably tripped over a loaf of rye bread. There is wonderfully chewy rugbrod at Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Terminal, spice-scented Swedish limpa at Plaj in San Francisco, and darkly rugged toast at Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis.
But none of it is the rye bread that most Americans know. Unlike a smooth, ivory-crumbed, faintly tangy loaf — the bread that clasps the ideal pastrami sandwich together — rye breads from Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Europe are bumpy, nutty and fragrant. They can be as dark as chocolate cake and as spicy as gingerbread. They are often powerfully sour and even more powerfully delicious.
Riding a wave of interest in ancient grains, rye is sprouting in many influential kitchens — in pasta, porridge, brownies and, most gratifyingly, in bread.
“Rugbrod is like wine in France or olive oil in Italy,” said Claus Meyer, the owner of Great Northern Food Hall and several new Nordic food enterprises in New York. He is also a founder of Noma in Copenhagen, a chef and a bread evangelist. “It is more than food,” he said. “It is history. It is culture, and agriculture.”
Rye, like barley and oats, is an ancient grain that thrives in cold and wet weather. Before modern agriculture and transportation made wheat available everywhere, rye was the best (and sometimes only) option for bread baking in a huge swath of northern Europe, from Russia and the Baltic States, west through Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands and up into Scandinavia.
The traditional breads produced by bakers and housewives were staples across the region, dense, fragrant and satisfying. Those qualities have also made rye bread popular among modern enthusiasts, who may also appreciate that it contains more fiber and less gluten than wheat.
Traditional all-rye breads, like pumpernickel, require a slow rise and a hot, steamy bake; in Iceland, rye breads were sealed and baked underground, using steam from natural geothermal springs. Rye bread is almost always sour, from the long fermentation it demands, while wheat bread can be neutral and sweet. Rye bread is also dense and heavy, which made the lofty wheat breads that showed up in the 19th century all the more appealing.
And so, although rye is extraordinarily hardy and easy to grow, it was abandoned by many Scandinavian farmers, grown mostly for animal feed and as a cover crop to plow nutrients back into the soil. By the 1970s and ’80s, according to Mr. Meyer, soft white bread had become the ideal. Both commercial and craft bakers abandoned the heavy brown loaves that had evolved over centuries and began baking French brioche and baguettes and American-style white bread.
But in Scandinavia, the smorrebrod (smorgas in Swedish) tradition helped keep strong rye breads alive. The open-faced sandwiches — with rich toppings like oily herring, cured salmon and smoked cheese — that serve as breakfast, snacks, lunch or all of the above simply cannot be built on limp, bland bread.
“You want the bitterness that comes from rye, and the edgy taste of the caramelized crust,” Mr. Meyer said.
For Mr. Meyer, an author of a local-food manifesto signed by dozens of Scandinavian chefs in 2004, winning respect for Nordic culinary tradition is a passion. He came of age as a chef in an era that glorified French and Mediterranean cuisines, when Scandinavia (like much of the United States) barely appeared on the global culinary radar.
“At the time, I felt there was literally no food that we were able to feel proud of,” he said.
Reproducing traditional breads became a mission that sent him trekking to ancient mills, prodding farmers to grow heritage grains, and descending into remote underground seed banks.
In the last decade, many other Nordic bakers, like Johan Sorberg and Camilla Plum, have taken on similar quests. But Mr. Meyer is the only one moving loaves of rugbrod in bustling Grand Central and trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn, baking them from Scandinavian strains of rye grown for him by Maine farmers who are tentatively reviving the crop in New England…
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