The Russian loaf affair.

May 14th, 2015Russian Revels

Where do you buy ‘our’ – nash – bread?

is the question I often heard when still new to these shores. Myself being weakly dissatisfied with the ‘wonder bread’ of supermarkets. Yearning for the bread I could sink my teeth into.

Bread is the head to everything! Russian saying.

Bread is the head to everything! Russian saying.

Black bread in particular with its distinctly slightly sour taste is what we, the Eastern European lot, crave for. It’s in our DNA it seems. The taste and the semi-mythological importance of bread are, it often feels, in our Slavic physic.

Russians’ preference for their own bread goes deeper than mere patriotism or nostalgia, signifying a respect for the connections and continuity of which sourdough is both metaphor and exemplar.

confirms Andrew Whitley at the latest installment of the series ‘Russia through its belly’ yours truly have been curating at Pushkin House – this talk being entirely dedicated to Russian sourdough bread, made with what Russians call zakvaska.

Andrew Whitley, the baker, and the wonder man.

Andrew Whitley, the baker, and the wonder man.

Andrew appeared to a bit of wonderful curiosity to us, russkis. This Angl0-Scottish man, a baker, a campaigner, he speaks quietly with a voluptuous passion for all things bread – and Russian bread at that.

Back in the 1970s, young student Andrew hopped through Ukraine and Russia, looking to practice Russian, understand that elusive Slavic soul, and, as it happens, eat gargantuan amounts of black bread (something about misunderstanding the currency exchange rules he says, which meant that him and his mate went about on a diet of bread and tomatoes – la dolce vita a la russe, I say).

I couldn’t stand the stuff at first. The sour, chewy ‘brick’ of a loaf.

He couldn’t live without it just a few weeks later.

I in turn survived the bread poor diet of my early days in London thanks to Andrew.

Selection of Andrew's sourdough breads.

Selection of Andrew’s sourdough breads.

In particular the Borodinsky bread of the Village Bakery. I recalled stumbling across the distinctive shape of the loaf in Waitrose and feeling somewhat stunned.

Это – наш.

It was our stuff indeed.

Andrew was the original founder of the now nationally established brand. Eventually he sold off the business to focus on the bread making courses, campaigning for the Real Bread – and writing.

In fact it’s Whitley’s Bread Matters book that got me into making my first sourdough rye bread. Yes, making my own sourdough starter from scratch. Yes, making the loaf without the use of a machine.

My Borodinsky bread turned out quite nicely.

Me with my breads, well not quite sourdough breads. Well, not quite me.

Me with my breads, well not quite sourdough breads. Well, not quite me.

Our talk with Andrew covered a huge terraine: from the almost magical (but actually rather scientific) benefits of the sourdough, to how the soviets apparently invented an ingenious way of scaling up the traditional sourdough methods (NOT what happened in the West with the invention of the so called Chorleywood Baking Process).

(I love this the promo video from Stavropol in Russia about the modern day bread making factory. honestly, fascinating, loafy willy wonka like stuff. in Russian only, sadly).

And of course we had lots of tastings of Andrew’s wonderful bread, including Borodinsky bread with raisins (here is the recipe), a favourite of the audience, especially with a slice of the English cheddar on top (recipe to follow!).

One almost wants to hail –

Long Live Russo-English friendship!

The cheesy, doughy kinda friendship? Ahem…


PS Our next talk  is on 11 June 2015 about Russian Dacha, that mystical and unique of Russian summer houses – and the food rituals surrounding it. By the renowned Food Anthropologist and editor of ‘Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies’ Melissa Caldwell.