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.
So many happy memories you have – and you must have created many more, having your friends visit from France :^)
Simply gorgeous bread! The crumb looks perfect and the smørrebrød absolutely delicious.
I'm so glad you liked the crème fraîche!
Hi breadsong, that's one of the things I like about getting on in life, having more and more memories to cherish or just learn from! And also being able to put them in perspective. It does open up new vistas…
Thank YOU for bringing the recipe to my attention in the first place and also for so kindly bringing me the crème fraîche. My French friends were bowled over by the food here in the Pacific Northwest! Next time you come I want to make smørrebrød for you, maybe with shrimp and mayo like the one I had in Denmark on that very first day long ago…
Thank you MC – it would be lovely to visit again!, and taste your Danish rye.
Your smørrebrød would be just wonderful – and I will be sure to bring along more crème fraîche!
You made this bread! I did too and was surprised my system could handle all that rye. I soaked the rye berries for 48 hours and they had just started to sprout. I added extra beer, a mistake because it was too much for my taste. I look forward to your test with a rye levain.
Thanks again for such a wonderful post!
Esther in Ottawa
Good to see you again, Esther! I read somewhere that rye is more digestible than wheat, so maybe your system was agreeably surprised!? Extra beer sounds like a yummy idea. Good thing to know that it isn't! I'll definitely keep you posted on the rye levain.
My Italian Smorgasbord says
it looks gorgeous MC I know what you mean about lost flavors (sometimes it feels that I am blogging mostly to re-experience memories) and, oh yeah, so it goes for Danish rye bread. I have been wanting to make it forever but I still cannot find a recipe which satisfies me. Yours looks, as you said, very close and I am sure that it tastes just like it. By the way, I have been experimenting with rye for a few weeks now – great minds think alike? or most probably is the Scandinavian influence – and I am taking a break from my rye experiments just to try your spelt loaf, possibly next Wednesday. you are always a great inspiration and totally love reading what you write.
Thank you, Barbara! That is very sweet and it totally makes my day. I can relate so well to what you say about blogging and memories… Is rye bread very different in Sweden from what it is in Denmark? Strangely, because I am so hooked on that bread of long ago, I am always slightly disappointed with the rye breads I try. I like them well enough but they just don't do it for me. However since reading this summer that rye contains much less phytic acid that wheat and its nutrients are therefore more readily available to the body than wheat's, I now have one more reason to try and recreate the bread I remember. Next step: trying Chad's recipe with rye levain. After that and depending on the result, I will have to think about the seeds… I don't know that there were any in the bread we bought from these old bakers. I'd be curious to find out if it is customary to add seeds to rye bread in Denmark.
My Italian Smorgasbord says
I am on the verge of getting a recipe from a Danish home-maker who makes Rugbrød with rye starter every week. very curious to have a look at her formula and see how close it is to the one you used (with wonderful results). will keep you posted.
Fantastic! Looking forward to it…
My Italian Smorgasbord says
this is getting exciting 🙂 I will join you in this search and put more effort in finding out possible recipes to try. have a nice weekend!
Beautiful looking bread. Your crust and crumb look perfect for this kind of bread. Beautiful photography as always.
I love moist crumb in multi-grain type breads and you certainly hit the mark.
Thank you so much, Ian! I hope to get the taste closer to what I remember but the texture was pretty much on target…
David Aplin says
Hi MC, This is a great post. I love rye bread in it's many varieties, the heavier and heartier the better. I am currently only making 2 types of rye bread, a light rye and a somewhat more robust version containing 60% rye sour. There was a time, a few years ago when we were still baking out of the wood fired oven in our backyard that I made Vollkornbrot on a regular basis. It was a very challenging bread to make but lots of fun, simply because it was completely different than some of the other wheat-based breads. The dough was ultra heavy and claylike, there was no folding, only a very short period of bulk rise then into the pans for final rise, maybe an hour and finally a long bake, at least two hours. I would often place the bread tins on sheets and push the heavy loaves into the oven when it was still way too hot bake the regular stuff…800ºF !! I would leave it there for only a short time, 15 minutes maximum then pull the tins out of the wood fired oven and finish the baking inside in our regular gas home oven. Very cumbersome, but the results were good. The bread filled the house with the very delicious smell of rye. Your link to Chad's article in "Food Arts" was fascinating to read and made me want to revisit this type of baking again. Thanks for your post and wonderful recollections.
The process you describe sounds cumbersome for sure but the fragrance of the baking rye is almost coming through my screen! Mmm…
Since you and Camelia are such rye fans, you might enjoy reading this article: http://www.foodarts.com/news/features/15955/the-baker-in-the-rye. All i can say is that I sure like the direction in which Chad Robertson is taking his baking research. I can't wait for the next Tartine book…
My Italian Smorgasbord says
hi again. I have just got two recipes for rye bread: one from a Danish stay-at-home mother and one from a Danish miller who published a lovely book on Nordic breads. Both recipes are close to the one you used, particularly the one from the stay-at-home mom, which is basically the recipe which always come out on commercial Swedish websites when entering the term "danska rågbröd". however, the recipe from the miller is slightly different as it does not include seeds nor buttermilk nor any other flour but rye. it's basically rye sourdough, rye soaker, rye flour, dark beer and malt (plus water and salt). the miller calls the loaf "the real rye bread". may be… indeed sesame seeds do not sound so terribly Scandinavian to me (but I could be wrong).
Is the miller's name Hanne Risgaard? If so, the book has come out in the US and I can't wait to put my hands on it! Meanwhile I made Chad Robertson's Danish rye bread again, this time with an all-rye levain. The taste wasn't much different but the texture was less satisfying, more on the gummy side. My main oven door was broken, so I had to use the lower oven and I don't think it got quite hot enough, so that might be the reason. Although I can't be sure until I try again, this time in my regular oven. It is entirely possible that with a rye levain the bread needs to cook longer…
Next up (until I get Risgaard's book) will be Andrew Whitley's Russian Rye (from the recipe in Bread Matters). I spoke to scientist/baker Andrew Ross who has spent many years in Copenhagen and he says Andrew's bread is as close as he has been able to get to rugbrød outside Denmark. I too would be tempted to think that true dansk rugbrød contains nothing but rye, beer, water, malt and salt. And I am eager to try that.
Meanwhile I have discovered from baking Chad's bread twice that rye sprouts really fast and turns tender and sweet from being soaked for twelve hours then drained and rinsed. It makes for a very tasty bread…
My Italian Smorgasbord says
yes, that's the lady! I received it together with Tartine and Bourke Street bakery books and I am so frustrated knowing I won't be able to do any serious baking for several weeks. about Hanne Risgaard book. really nice work, but I find extremely frustrating that there are very few pictures of the crumb. it is so difficult to judge a bread just by looking at the crust. but I do trust her on Nordic recipes. in her rye bread recipe I read that the bread should be cooked for 2 and 1/2 hours and then let cool for 24 hours. can't wait to try it…
regarding Russian rye, I had the strong feeling that those breads are basically the same by reading about Russian rye in a couple of books. would you recommend "bread matters"?
this thing with soaking grains is totally new to me and can't wait to include it in my baking. xox
Oh then that may be why my rye bread was gummy the second time around when I used a rye starter. The total baking time was 85 minutes. Probably not enough by a long shot. I did give it a 24 hour cooling period and we are in fact enjoying it even though it is imperfect. I think what makes it so delicious is the tender whole rye grains inside.
Yes, I would recommend Bread Matters: I find the book very interesting even though I don't often bake from it.
I am taking the ferry to Victoria tomorrow to attend an Andrew Whitley's workshop on Saturday. I might be able to tell you more afterwards… Bisous!
Forgot to ask you if you have seen this article: http://www.foodarts.com/news/features/15955/the-baker-in-the-rye
Very very interesting… Makes me long to hop on a plane to Scandinavia. I bet the Nordic book is going to have the same effect!
Late reply, but a few of us bakers are taking a research trip to Denmark, Germany and poss Norway on march 10. You're very welcome to join us. Alison pray (Portland ME)
Alison, thank you! I would have loved to take such a trip and with passionate bakers too. What a treat it would have been… But I think I need to pass for this year. As a favor I would love it if you could keep me posted as to what you learn and discover though. Have a great time!
This is an old thread, but hopefully someone might still find this…
I'm mixing the dough today (after a couple months of making only Chad Robertson's ww country loaf–very successfully) and it is extremely wet, closer to batter than dough. I am used wet doughs, as in the country loaf, but I can't imagine it thickening any more than it has already. The instructions said to use wet hands to scoop out the dough into greased bread pans, but the consistency was so wet, that it had to be poured. Has anyone run into this runny problem?
thank you for sharing your memories!