Primož Bregar, scenography: Klemen KoširPrimož Bregar, scenography: Klemen Košir by Ljubljana, Slovenia

The Forgotten Rye

If there were ever a grain that reflected the character of the Slovenian countryside throughout its long history of self-sufficiency, that grain would definitely be rye.

Even as little as one hundred years ago, every farm, no matter how small, had at least a patch of land sown with this sturdy cultivar, that is much more cold-tolerant than wheat and able to survive even on impoverished, nutrient-poor soil. While wheat thrives on lowland plains basking in the sun, rye feels at home in rougher rolling hills, which in fact cover most of the Slovenian geographical territory.

The hilly region of Koroška, where solitary farmsteads reach the highest towards the sky, is where rye and rye bread culture left the deepest imprint in daily routine. Many homes there still smell of fragrant homemade rye bread, despite the increasing pressure of local shops offering industrial baked goods.

In these towns and villages grain is a synonym for rye, and white wheat bread – at least for the older generation – is something foreign, an intruder from places with a different culture. Workers and farmers used to call white bread “breath” as it provided them with nothing, least of all satisfaction from hunger. Black rye bread ruled the table every day; filling and nutritious, it stayed fresh longer and was there to keep company with the old and the young, from dawn till dusk.

In many ways, the full choreography of making rye dough still stands as an example to be followed. All the steps are well thought out and perfected, leaving out all unnecessary ballast. To save energy and fuel, bread was baked once a week or even a fortnight. The lady of the house would knead plenty of flour into big, heavy loaves that were all baked in the wood-fired bread oven and then left in a cool, dark pantry to be eaten when the time came.

As this bread requires little yeast the dough rises slowly, thus training our patience. Kneading the moist dough requires quick, confident movements, leaving no room for wishy-washiness, and forcing us to unleash the boldness within us. Weighing the ingredients, we build our sense of measure, step by step approaching the stage when we no longer need the kitchen scale to bake an even tastier loaf. And finally, there we are, staring humbly at the oven, praying for a successful outcome.

Before baking, housewives would show their respect with a prayer of intercession, because well-baked, delicious bread was far from being taken for granted. In the regions of Gorenjska and Koroška people used to cut a triangle into the risen dough (the Holy Trinity) and then make a little hole in the middle with their fingers (the Holy Spirit). The cuts made sure the dough in the oven expanded evenly without cracking and the little hole protected the bread from evil spirits and harm.

Before biting into the fresh bread people would make a cross at the bottom of the loaf, and only then did they cut and eat the first slice.

Out of respect for this cultural heritage and rye as the grain that has fed generations of Slovenians, I selected and wrote down a recipe for homemade rye bread. We’ll use fresh industrial yeast to avoid the time-consuming preparation of sourdough – or droži, as we call it – and bake it in the conventional electric oven instead of the traditional wood-fired bread oven. We will, however, stick to the basic principle of traditional dough preparation, with slow fermentation as the crucial step that will finally enrich the bread with its pleasant aroma and full, wholesome flavour.

- Klemen Košir