Rye, a grain with ancient roots, is rising again

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 in New York, 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 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,” Meyer said.

For 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 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.

As in traditional Nordic kitchens, that bread is repurposed in multiple ways: thinly sliced and fried into crisp crackers, crumbled and simmered into the traditional morning porridge called ollebrod, and used as a starter for rye ale, at Brooklyn Brewery.

In the Bay Area, Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery was one of the first modern American bakers to take on rugbrod, partly spurred by the sudden demand for lower-gluten and whole-grain breads. Now chefs on both coasts have joined in.

At Bar Tartine in San Francisco, stale rye bread is brewed with beets into a sweet-tart cocktail, and a barely sweet rye poundcake has graced the dessert menu. At High Street on Hudson in the West Village of Manhattan, house-made rye rigatoni are tossed with a duck and fennel ragù. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, where chef Dan Barber is leading the charge on exploring heritage grains, the kitchen produces a savory, delicate rye-flour mille-feuille.

Other chefs are using rye bread and whole rye grains (also called rye berries) in ways that go beyond bread and pastry. At Bondir in Concord, Massachusetts, rye grains arrive not in bags but in bales, still attached to the stalks. The chef, Jason Bond, grows rye on the restaurant’s small farm and uses it for dishes both savory and sweet: simmered in water, like beans, with thyme and a clove of garlic; puffed, dehydrated and pan-fried for a crunchy salad garnish; or mixed with sweet spices and nuts to make a crumblelike dessert topping.

He even uses the rye stalks, pressing them around a whole chicken or cauliflower, then sealing the entire package for slow-roasting. (This method of straw- or hay-roasting, a Nordic tradition, is also in vogue.)

Rye bread, of course, is not news to Americans.

What we generally call rye bread, although it is not a whole-grain bread, isn’t simply an American bastardization of a European rye. According to Stanley Ginsberg, author of “The Rye Baker,” there is an Old World tradition behind our mild rye loaf cut with plenty of wheat flour and seasoned with caraway. In Ukraine and southern Poland, the birthplace of thousands of Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York City at the beginning of the last century, wheat-rye combinations are familiar. “Bread spice,” a combination of caraway, anise, fennel and coriander seeds, is common across the region.

This light, faintly tangy “sissel” rye (sissel is the Yiddish word for caraway) spread across the United States with Jewish delis; as in Scandinavian smorrebrod, the strong flavor of rye is perfect with rich and salty fillings, like pastrami, kosher salami and chopped liver.

Eastern European “Jewish” rye bread became the American default, although there were and are other American rye breads, like sweet, earthy Milwaukee rye, austere Dakota rye and Boston brown bread, which is almost half rye flour. (Settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to grow wheat in the 17th century, but the inhospitable climate and soil forced the switch to rye.)

Jewish rye bread, like the bagel, is in a constant state of peril, with ever fewer bakeries making it the traditional way. One bulwark is Orwasher’s in Manhattan, where 10-pound loaves of sissel rye are baked daily, just as they have been since 1916, when the bakery was founded in Yorkville. The owner, Keith Cohen, calls it a “community loaf”; customers can buy as much or as little as they need.

Orwasher’s still starts its rye from a traditional biga, a live sourdough culture, instead of the yeast and other additives most commercial bakeries use. On weekends, Orwasher’s makes an old-school kornbroyt, a slow-risen, rougher-textured bread with more of the whole rye grain.

Kornbroyt is prized by Jewish-bread aficionados because in this era of puffy, sweet bagels and breads, it still has the pull and tang of tradition.

But many Americans are still hesitant about rye, along with other heritage grains like spelt and einkorn that are acclaimed more for health than flavor.

Chefs like Kevin Adey, of Faro in Brooklyn, are out to change that. Adey makes fresh rye pasta throughout the winter, because its nutty flavor stands up to long-cooked ragùs and sauces. “When you are cooking 30 ingredients together in a ragù, things get pretty complex,” he said. “You need complex flavors in the pasta as well.”

Like a small but growing number of chefs, Adey mills all of the flour himself, from whole grains, for each batch of pasta or bread. “Fresh flour compared with the stuff in the bag is like night and day,” he said.

However, Adey says, he never puts “rye,” or the name of any other grain, on the menu; the current offering is listed as strascinati (stretched) pasta with venison ragù and celery root, and it is one of his best sellers.

“People think they don’t like rye, but my theory is that they just don’t like caraway,” he said. “The taste and smell of freshly milled grains — humans are programmed to love that.”

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