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That Rye Flavour: Reaching for Something from the Past

Spot the rye! (It’s the distinctive grey-blue coloured grain in the bottom left)

Rye is an alluring grain that nevertheless gets overlooked by its domineering cousin, wheat. Even other ancient grains such as spelt and durum have a higher profile. On Pender Island, it is easy to find these flours, but nary a bag of dark rye flour. Even Victoria suffers from this dearth.

And yet rye has been with us for thousands of years, found a toe hold in the European and immigrant cultures of North America. It is more popular in eastern parts of the continent, but on the west coast? Not as much.

Rye enthusiasts

There are some rye bread fans among customers of the Happy Monk Baking Company. And I couldn’t be more pleased. One or two of them are passionate about the grain and would prefer a rye choice each week. With most rye enthusiasts, their attachment to the grain comes from childhood, where it may have been the first bread they consumed. And they long for that taste, that texture, that transports them to another place, another time.

Take me back, take me way, way, way back, Van Morrison intones.

When you walked, in a green field, in a green meadow
Down an avenue of trees
On a golden summer
And the sky was blue
And you didn’t have no worries, you didn’t have no care
You were walking in a green field
In a meadow, through the buttercups, in the summertime
And you looked way out over, way out
Way out over the city and the water
And it feels so good, and it feels so good

Van Morrison, “Take Me Back”, from the album Hymns to the Silence.

Van’s not talking about rye bread, here. But he’s reaching for something almost inexpressible, an innocence. He’s chasing a state of mind that seems to exist somewhere in the past, but could also exist only in the imagination.

Rye is a grain that often evokes that idea of something from the past. A German friend tasted some bread I had made that had about 20 percent rye. She savoured the flavour with eyes closed, looked up and said, “Now that is real bread!”

The ‘unruly weed’

The green field Van Morrison describes could have been rye. It was once considered “an unruly weed,” something that grew in between the einkorn, millet or barley plants, choking off the main crops of the earliest grain farmers. And when the weather turned dry and cold, it was the rye plants that thrived.

It was that resiliency that made rye suitable for the mid- to northern European climate, where growing conditions were harsher and wetter than in the sun-baked fields of pre-historic Turkey, Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. It became a staple crop in areas that would become Germany, Poland, Russia and Scandinavia, where rye became central to the diet and culture.

Stanley Ginsberg’s The Rye Baker, is, to me, as much a paean to rye bread as it is a book of recipes. Published three years ago, it has done more to turn me into a rye enthusiast than any in my entire library of bread books. It’s his passion that makes the difference and his informed knowledge of rye’s historical roots. The Rye Baker details recipes from all the rye regions, the cooking techniques used, flavour profiles and ways the bread is served. It is a sweeping portrait of rye and a true celebration.

A difficult dough to work with

I’ve worked my way through many of the recipes of this book and have grown to love rye breads of all kinds. It is different than the bread I grew up with. Yet I love the deep, rustic flavour of rye that seems almost other worldly. My familial heritage is Scottish, where oatcakes and bannock strike a chord. I feel them in the bones. Rye was hardly consumed in my childhood, except on a few occasions when Aunty Betty produced a rye loaf made with anise seeds. My father hoarded it, as it was a bread his Scottish mother made.

When I first tried making a 100 percent rye loaf, it was a blow to my pride. The dough was difficult to work with. It did not come to life in the way a wheat dough did, which forms gluten networks through kneading, quickly becoming a unified mass. It did not rise like wheat; or at least in a less dramatic way. Rye dough was flaccid, gloppy, sticky. When baked, it was dense, unlike the pillowy lofty crumb, and thick shattery crust that I so loved in wheat bread.

Closer to home

Tasting the rye from Fry’s Red Wheat Bakery in Victoria was the first time I got that inexpressible sense from rye bread. The German Rye loaf was slightly bitter, musky, smoky, dense … and yet tender. It tasted strange to the Scottish part of me, but there was something I could connect with. An ‘old world’ of foreign smells and flavour.

The Flax and Sesame Rye loaf opened to something more accessible. The flax seed accented the 60 percent rye, but was counteracted by the lightness from the sesame seeds. The loaf still carried the same muskiness of the German.

It is the rye breads that distinguish Fry’s, I think, from the other bakeries in Victoria. The city has a trove of great baking that is as rich or more so than that of Vancouver. But it is Fry’s grasp of rye that makes the difference for me. And I am inspired to learn more, to find a rye loaf that is part of the Happy Monk canon of breads.

So I invite you, friends, to walk by my side as I experiment and search for the Happy Monk rye experience. I have little sense of where I am going on on this journey. But I’ll be looking somewhere … way, way, way back.

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