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Rye Bread

The rye field blooms for two weeks, for two weeks the grains mature and for another two they dry and then it’s time for Jēkabs’s Day! Jēkabs’s Day, July 25th, is the ancient new rye day when a loaf of bread made from the new harvest must appear on the table, everyone tasting a piece in respectful silence. The newly baked bread was first presented for tasting to the head of the household, then it had to be tasted by everyone else.

In the old days, bread was baked in every Latvian country house. The mainstay bread, the daily bread was dark rye.  The bread was baked in a special oven and special tools were used for the various stages of preparing and baking it. The dark rye “rupjmaize” was baked of rye flour, the sweet-and-sour from fine rye flour, on Saturdays karaša, a type of bread made of barley and roughly ground wheat flour, but finely ground wheat flour was reserved for white bread.

Rupjmaize, literally “rough bread” is also called the “black bread”. For making the dough a trough made of light wood was used. Usually, boiling water was poured over the flour; mixed with lukewarm water, yeast was supplemented by a starter from the previous baking. The rather runny dough was left in the trough overnight to ferment. In the morning the kneading started. Kneading was hard but holy labor, so women who did it would put on a white shirt and put a white scarf around their hair. The kneading took a long time, adding more flour and caraway seeds. When the dough would no longer stick to one’s hands the kneading stopped. A loaf was formed, drawing a cross on its top, and then it was covered and left to ferment further. Once the oven was hot, three pinches of flour were thrown in. If they burned, the oven was swept with a damp broom made of leafy branches to steam it up a little. The trough with the dough was put next to the oven and little loaves were shaped on the baker’s peel that was covered with a dusting of flour or maple leaves and quickly put in the oven.

The sign drawn on the top of the loaf was usually a Christian cross, but sometimes older signs were pressed into the dough, pronouncing special spells.

A special tool was used to scrape the dough sticking to the sides of the trough and a small loaf was made of the dough. That was ready first and could be eaten by children and the bakers. A small ball of dough was left as a starter for the next batch. Sometimes a loaf was baked with a filling: sauerkraut with meat or pilchards, or salted meat with chopped onions.

The whole loaf was never given away for fear of giving away the good luck of the household. The first piece of the freshly baked bread was given to the head of the household who had tended to the crops, whereas the children and the young girls waited for the heels. The cutting was started at the wider end of the loaf so that the older daughter would be married first and for the ears of rye to get bigger. The loaf was never left upside down, because there was the belief that the devil then can feed himself and send famine to the house.

Indra Čekstere

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Indra Čekstere par rudzu maizi Latvijas kultūras kanonā, 2019.

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