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Rye Bread: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Rye and Spelt Sourdough Loaf – A Happy Monk fave!

Last week’s Rye and Spelt Loaf scratched a need for me — the taste of rye, that unusual grain that bakes and tastes so differently than wheat. I’m rarely over-the-moon about my bread, as many customers are, but this loaf was beautiful!

The coarse rye flour in this loaf was highlighted by the milder tasting spelt flour, and I tasted that big earthy flavour I love so much about this under-appreciated grain. Baking the Rye and Spelt loaf came with the distinctive heady aroma of rye, which filled the air around Mildrith and concentrated in the kitchen where the loaves cooled for 24 hours.

The lightly toasted flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds added a pleasing nuttiness and a chewy texture to the bread. I’d get a taste of a caramelized seed every now and then, giving it an added note of flavour.

The additions of barley malt syrup and a few cans of Guinness stout lent the crumb a subtle yet pleasing sweetness.

How does this loaf compare?

Well, I have so little experience with authentic rye bread that there’s little for me with which to compare this loaf. I have learned, though, that most people associate the taste of rye with caraway or other bread spices. Here, there was none, and in this sense, the flavour was closer to the rye style that my books say you’d encounter in Germany or Scandinavia.

The internet is full of articles that decry the state of rye bread in North America. The most common reference is the Jewish Deli loaf, which many writers say has been degraded by cheap ingredients meant to mimic the look and feel of authentic deli bread.

The “Woody Allen” pastrami sandwich from the Carnegie Delicatessen, New York City. Made with “authentic” deli rye bread!

The iconic Carnegie Delicatessen

Years ago, I went to the iconic Carnegie Delicatessen in New York. It was a vivid experience, walking into the dimly lit restaurant, the walls lined with autographed pictures of celebrities and famous people. It had a musty smell, and the tables had open dishes of the briniest pickles and peppers you could imagine.

One of the menu choices was “The Woody Allen” sandwich, which I think I ordered 1. It was an absurdity! Four inches of hot pastrami piled up between two small slices of non-descript bread. There may have been a thin schmear of mustard on one of the slices.

“Heart disease runs in my family,” I thought glumly. But I dove into it and could barely make it through the half. That was it. The pastrami sandwich made into a farce stripped bare of garnishes, condiments … and even the bread!

I believe the bread was Jewish Deli Rye, but it was an afterthought, really. It was tasteless, without texture. There may have been rye flour in it, but it could almost have been Wonder Bread. When you bit into the sandwich, the bread broke apart, and you were left with a mass of greasy meat. Torn, soggy flaps of flaccid bread.

But who am I to criticize?

It wasn’t a great first impression of authentic Jewish Deli Rye! And perhaps unfair of me to highlight this experience. Writers bemoan the increasing rarity of real rye bread, but there are still bakeries — in New York and Los Angeles (of all places!) that take pride in producing the real thing.

According to the U.S. baker and author Jeffrey Hamelman, one of the problems is the use of sub-standard ingredients. “White rye” is a sifted form of whole rye flour, and while there are some advantages to this ingredient, it is largely tasteless.

Another problem is what Hamelman calls the “inappropriate use of caramel colour to make something erroneously called pumpernickel bread.” This brand of pumpernickel is readily available in local stores. They are small blocks of dark, dense bread wrapped in plastic packages.

Real pumpernickel contains no caramel colour. The deep, dark bread got its colour from a long, overnight bake in the falling heat of wood-fired ovens. Once removed from the pans, the bread was a rich, dark brown, almost black. The starches in the rye were converted to sugars, caramelized naturally, and provided the intensity of aroma and colour.

You can get a hint of this deep aroma hanging around Mildrith, the Happy Monk wood-fired oven, on bake mornings.

Caramelized colouring: a rye baking hack that fools the consumer

The caramel colouring was a time-saving measure that gave an authentic look to the bread but nothing of the deep flavour.

The use of caramel colouring became so entrenched that someone thought to contrast the dark colour, mixing it with that of white dough to create marbled rye. You’ll recognize this bread that combines two strands of tasteless coloured dough with two strands of equally bland white dough. Usually a cautious commentator, Hamelman describes these loaves as “an insult to bakers and consumers alike.”

A friend for life

Maybe you’ve decided rye bread does nothing for you. Perhaps you’ve sampled the European dark rye loaves found on grocery store shelves.

But talk to the people who grew up eating authentic rye bread, made with care and skill. There’s a reason that rye is the bread of their dreams. That deep, earthy flavour carries a slight sourdough tang and a satisfying chew. That bread goes so well with rich cheeses, mustards, smoked meats and salty pickles.

Or if you need more convincing, visit the Happy Monk oven early some morning when rye loaves are coming out of Mildrith. Give it a chance, and you might find a new friend in a loaf of real rye bread and have a friend for life!


  1. This was in 1996, ten years before the deli shut its doors for good, and years before Allen’s name was tainted by abuse scandals and ugly court cases.

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