I see my quest for Danish rye bread as a Proustian endeavor (if Proust could conjure a bygone world from a morsel of madeleine dunked into lime-flower tea, why couldn’t I bring back to life a beloved chunk of the past with a slice of bread?) but as such, of course, it might be doomed: Proust himself knew from experience that long-ago days cannot be summoned at will and that involuntary memory alone has the power to revive them.
Still, he wrote this which I hold to be true: “When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
I would so love to access forgotten memories of the summers spent in Denmark in the 60’s and early 70’s with my mother-in-law Sigrid and her stepmom, Bebbe, back when we still lived in France. Our kids were barely out of babyhood (our youngest wasn’t even born yet) and we split our time between a tiny wooden cabin at the beach, lost among heather and pines, and Bebbe’s apartment in an old and quiet neighborhood near Copenhagen.
I don’t have many photos of these days (we were on a tight budget and film developing was expensive) and the few I have are mainly of people. So most of the images are in my head: the silvery wings of an old windmill against a deep blue sky, fields of wheat undulating in the sea breeze, a feisty dachshund jumping up and stealing our two-year’s old’s round lollipop as we walked home from the grocery store, a tiny courtyard full of flowers and an even tinier kitchen with a white-painted half-door through which Bebbe could be seen frying endless platters of frikadelle (meatballs), pickling gherkins (syltede asier) which we loved to eat with almost everything, making rabarber grød (a buttermilk-based cold rhubarb soup) and generally doing her best to keep us well fed and happy.
I can still see the apartment with the high-back dark red velvet Victorian couch, the finches waiting for crumbs on the leafy balcony, Bebbe herself in her old-fashioned silk dress and lace collar, the evening tea we drank in tall china cups and the endless rounds of rummy we played at night once the kids were in bed.
Bebbe lived to be 103 and kept her wits to the end. She credited the iced shot of aquavit she had with lunch every day for her general good health. That, and her daily pint of room-temperature dark ale as well as the rye bread that accompanied every meal.
I was never one for hard liquor and I didn’t appreciate beer back then. So I don’t have any taste or smell memories associated either with the aquavit or with the ale but Bebbe’s house is where I discovered rye bread. Of course I had had some in France, mostly on festive occasions when oysters appeared on the table. But that French pain de seigle had in no way prepared me for the chewy, grainy and fragrant dark marvel that formed the base of the open shrimp sandwich (smørrebrød) Bebbe had prepared for my very first lunch in Denmark. It was love at first taste.
Whether at the beach or in the city, she had a favorite bakery where she always bought her bread. I knew nothing about bread then and certainly didn’t have the slightlest inkling that one day I would be into making my own, or I would have taken pictures, interviewed the bakers, asked to see their surdejg (sourdough), jotted down recipes and bought rye berries to bring back to France. But I could identify artisan rye bread with my eyes closed just from the smell of the slowly fermented grain. Supermarket bread (which we tried once when we ran out and the bakery was closed) didn’t even come close.
I haven’t been back to Denmark in ages and of course everything would be different anyway if I visited again. So making a rugbrød that would, à la Proust, revive the taste and smell of these Danish summers and maybe recall the voices of the two women who lovingly wove these memories together for us seems like the only way back…
While I have yet to find a rye bread that quite does the trick, Chad Robertson’s Danish rye bread comes close. We had friends from France staying with us when I made open sandwiches with it. Both are well traveled and have been to Scandinavia and immediately after taking a bite, they exclaimed: “Danish rye bread!”. So the taste is definitely there. Sort of. Although the bread isn’t nearly as fragrant as the one I recall. It may be because Chad uses a wheat levain. I am pretty sure the rye bread we had in those long ago summers was made with a rye levain. I’ll try making it again and see.
Still, with a bit of smoked wild Alaskan salmon, a dollop of crème fraîche from British Columbia (brought to me the other day by my friend breadsong and easily the best I have ever had on this continent) and a spray of fresh dill, Chad’s Dansk rugbrød makes a lovely smørrebrød. It doesn’t awaken old memories but it makes me smile as I imagine Bebbe giving it a try and pronouncing it americansk but good before methodically downing her aquavit.
On the technical side, I was a bit worried that the rye berries wouldn’t be soft enough to incorporate in the dough if simply soaked overnight, so I soaked them for 24 hours before draining and rinsing them. Since I had an unexpected scheduling conflict and couldn’t mix and bake as planned, I put them in the fridge for another 24 hours. When I looked at them, they had started to sprout. Knowing I wouldn’t have time to bake for another couple of days, I put them in the freezer. I took them out the night before I mixed the dough. I made sure all the ingredients were at room temperature when I started, even the buttermilk and the beer.
My 9 x 5.5 ” bread pans were a bit too small for the amount of dough the recipe yielded. The breads clearly wanted to rise higher and couldn’t. Next time I should probably make two and a half loaves. Although maybe I should first see if I get the same rise out of an all-rye starter…
Chad Robertson’s Danish Rye Bread is going to Susan for this week’s issue of Yeastspotting.