My first memory of rye bread is closely connected to a 1975 beige canvas box-sofa. It took up most of the space in my family’s one-room apartment serving as a couch in the daytime and a bed at night. There I would sit, aged two, flicking through my favorite book about an ostrich with a name similar to mine and eating rye bread with camembert cheese. I thought it a divine combo. Still do.
When I was five my parents had bought a house in the countryside. Often I would go to my best friend’s house and we would curl up under the thick Danish duvets and listen to horrifying Tintin stories from old cassettes. This very frequent activity rigorously demanded that we treat ourselves to large lumps of a round, soft and almost sweet rye bread that my friend’s mom would keep in the pantry. We carved the lumps off the bread with a traditional, manual bread cutter called the Raadvad bread machine and ate them like candy. I wasn’t allowed that kind of fine grain rye bread at home; my mom had deemed it unhealthy for me, like soda, gummy bears and American movies.
A lump of rye bread in Danish is called a “humpel”; one of several words which apply exclusively to the realm of the rye bread. The Inuit may well have 120 words to describe snow, but we Danes have our own areas of expertise.
Despite my well nourished and otherwise culturally sound upbringing meeting Eva’s rye bread was a culinary awakening!
White bread of bolted rye
In school holidays we would often visit my grandparents on the southern island of Falster. My granddad ate five different things in his life: pork, potatoes, brown colored gravy, cucumber pickle and a white, soft, dense and firm bread called a “sigtebrød” – a 70/30 mix of bolted rye and wheat. The rest of us would have the sigtebrød with pan fried cod roe, drops of lemon juice and a tartare sauce. My granddad would take pork on his.
Back home in the northern part of the country, I have a very clear memory of tasting my dad’s homemade rolled lamb sausage (rullepølse) on rye bread. Garlic, parsley, salt and crushed black pepper married perfectly with the aromatic fat from the lamb and the crunchy and chewy slice of rye bread. Thickness ratio bread/lamb was 2:1.
Around that time I started in school which included bringing a lunchbox of very simple open faced wholegrain rye bread sandwiches. A slice of rye bread in those days – hardly anymore – was called a “rundtenom”, meaning “a slice that goes all the way around the bread” – a full slice. My parents, being city folks, they would call half of such a slice with any topping a “mad” – “a piece of food”, whereas country people referred to such a specimen as a “mellemmad” – “an in-between piece of food”. Such a “piece of food” would usually have a fine spread of butter and a single topping of choice. My mother specialized in banana and apple on the sliced rye bread. I still love both.
A rye bread revelation
Fast forward to 1996 where, after high school graduation, I worked at an organic fruit and vegetable farm. I lived at the estate and began every day at 7 by harvesting the squash. At 11.30 we’d go to lunch all around the long table bringing in selected veggies from the warehouse. At this table I had my first real rye bread revelation.
A freshly baked pure blood organic wholegrain sourdough rye bread would be brought from a woman named Eva, who lived and baked the bread 30 km from the farm. But worth every inch of the way! That bread was like nothing I’d ever tasted. Perfectly balanced between a rough, dark and crunchy crust and the soft, delicate, dense and compact crumb. Between a light and open fruitiness and a deeper, alluring complexity of aromas of earth, barnyard, mushroom and malt. Between mouthwatering acidity and saltiness and the round and generous sweetness of the ripe cereal. I moved away from home without ever having heard the word “sourdough”, and despite my well nourished and otherwise culturally sound upbringing meeting Eva’s rye bread was a culinary awakening!
Within a few years I found myself studying at the Hotel & Catering College of Copenhagen, eagerly experimenting with alternative fermentations to raise breads and cultivate sourdoughs. To this day I’m still convinced I managed to raise a dough using only lactobacilli cultivated from a local blue cheese. Please don’t tell me I didn’t.
As a 30-year old I had been a freelance wine and food writer for 4-5 years and baking was something I only did for special occasions. That was until I ran into a girl who in words and doing taught me the beauty of a continuous everyday baking culture. The relationship only lasted for a couple of months but the inspiration and urge to keep the sourdough alive and the bread baking going stayed with me. How working with the live dough, choosing ingredients, creating small variations and eating my own rye bread contributes to my happiness I could describe in great length and detail. But I’ll spare you the bore. You’re better off creating your own rye bread story. It’s a great job if you can get it!