If you mention Latvian food, then one of the first things to come to mind is Latvian rye bread. This is also the food that most Latvians crave if they have been living outside Latvia and have a yearning for food from the homeland. A slice of warm rye bread, fresh from the oven, topped with a thick layer of farm fresh butter is almost a meal in itself. Latvians will search far and wide when not in Latvia to find a delicatessen that imports (or bakery that bakes) this rustic, heavy bread. Usually the shops that stock this bread sell Eastern European products and are run by either Russians, Poles or Lithuanians, as Eastern Europeans have a propensity for eating very similar foods – sauerkraut, pickled gherkins, pickled mushrooms, kefir, cottage cheese, smallgoods. And, of course, rye bread.
Latvian rye bread is much heavier than the standard rye or full-grain breads available in most supermarkets. It is most similar to the Russian chyorniy khleb or German Schwarzbrot – or black bread. This bread is considered healthier than white (wheat) bread and has a lower glycaemic index, contains a large amount of fibre and a small amount of fat.
Rye bread has for centuries been a staple of the Latvian diet – rye and barley were the grains that were available all year round, wheat was a delicacy, and white bread was only baked on special occasions. Rye has been grown in Latvia for over 1,200 years. Similar to Scandinavian and Slavic traditions, baked from leavened dough and traditionally baked in a wood-fired oven, the intensely flavoured bread is made with coarse rye flour, malt and caraway seeds. Authentic rye bread can be purchased at Latvian farmers’ markets and open-air fairs from the stalls of local bread artisans; some loaves are baked surrounded by maple leaves for added flavour.
The bread also has a long shelf life and can be stored for months rather than days; for Latvians it is a popular food to bring along when travelling, as it doesn’t spoil. The other bread popular among Latvians is sweet and sour bread (saldskābmaize) which is made from finely ground rye flour, also containing mandatory caraway seeds. Leftover rye bread is not wasted either – rye breadcrumbs are used to make a delicious dessert – rupjmaizes kārtojums, similar to trifle, made with jam or preserves and whipped cream; rye bread soup (maizes zupa) made with rye bread, dried fruit, whipped cream and cranberries and the classic snack served in restaurants and bars as a starter – ķiploku grauzdiņi – fried rye bread with garlic, served with mayonnaise.
The whole process of bread-baking is accompanied by blessing rites and treated as sacred work. In the olden days the woman about to bake bread would first put on a clean blouse, and tie her hair back with a white scarf. The kneading process was hard work, undertaken with the dough placed in an abra – a big wooden kneading trough. When the bread was ready for baking, the loaf (klaips, or kukulis), still in dough form, was adorned with the finishing touch – a sign of the cross. The cross was made with one’s fingers or the side of one’s hand – either a standard cross, a sloping cross or a few straight lines. When the bread was baked, traditionally, the head of the household was entitled to the first slice and the ends of the loaf were allocated to children and the young unmarried women in the household. While the bread is being sliced, a sign of the cross would be drawn on the bottom of the loaf with a knife. There are a number of other traditions, superstitions and beliefs associated with bread. Some examples:
- If bread is accidentally dropped on the floor, it must be immediately picked up and kissed, so God doesn’t get angry.
- Do not place a loaf of bread upside down, otherwise the family will experience hunger.
These superstitions might appear quaint to us now, yet only a century ago, treating your bread with reverence was part of a farmer’s life, just like saying grace before every meal. These traditions are evidence of the importance placed on bread and its revered status – without it families could possibly have starved.
These days bread-making as it was in the olden days – in a wood-fired oven, using a wooden trough for kneading the dough has become popular and is being rejuvenated. Old-fashioned bread-making has also become a popular leisure activity – either visiting bread museums or learning to bake bread in workshops.
Bread baking. The Balvu District Museum video story by Ruta Cibule, Iluta Grīnberga and Līga Podkovirina from the project "Promotion of intangible culture heritage in Latgale" in 2009 and the studio in Susāju parish Vēršu hill in 2013. The Latgalian folk song performed by Medņeva folk group "Egle". 2014.
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