When cold and wetter climate hit Europe in the 5th century, rye became part of a new and more varied bread culture. But what is rye and why did it get to be so widespread in North-Eastern Europe?
The people of Taurinum, at the foot of the Alps, give to rye the name of “asia;” it is a very inferior grain, and is only employed to avert positive famine. It is prolific, but has a straw of remarkable thinness; it is also black and sombre-looking, but weighs extremely heavy. Spelt is mixed with this grain to modify its bitterness, and even then it is very disagreeable to the stomach. It will grow upon any soil, and yields a hundred-fold; it is employed also as a manure for enriching the land.
Originally from Turkey rye was probably imported into Europe during the Bronze Age. From this time on, rye occasionally featured in pollen-diagrams, excavated pits and in stomachs of bog-bodies. But it was not really prominent until the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, where it spread as part of a more diverse portfolio of grains cultivated after AD 500. It is generally believed that the growing predominance of rye was occasioned by the need to diversify caused by the colder and wetter climate, which set in at this time. Since then, rye has been a staple in most of Central and Eastern Europe from Southern Scandinavia to north of the Alps.
Rye is a type of grain, which can be sown in the fall. As such it provides a cover for ground during winter, preventing growth of winter-hardy weeds. It grows during warmer days when sunlight temporarily warms the ground, but it also thrives beneath snow cover, lying dormant, waiting for spring. If the crop is destroyed during a particularly harsh winter, it can be ploughed down providing organic matter for growing a spring crop like barley. Further: rye can grow in much poorer soils than wheat – sandy or peaty. This made it ideal for zones east of the Limes, characterised by humid continental climate. But it also made rye ideal for peasants seeking a diverse portfolio as part of farming practices geared towards subsistence economy.
Rye has traditionally been used to bake a heavy bread. As rye flour is high in gliadin but low in glutenin it does not raise as well as wheat bread. But it raises much better than bread made of barley or oats, which does not rise at all. The straw was especially sought after as bedding for animals as well as used in roofs for the new forms of peasant architecture built of wood, waddle and daub.
Early Medieval Shift
During Roman times, wheat was the bread corn par excellence, imported to Rome from Egypt and Northern Africa. However, numerous sievings of pits and charred remains in floors carried out by archaeologists have – together with pollen analyses – demonstrated that a wide variety of grains became increasingly cultivated on the less favourable land in mountain areas or further north, when the climate shifted. Another reason was probably also that Roman agricultural practices centered around villas were replaced by subsistence-farming handled by peasants; some of whom may have brought seeds or at least their farming practices growing barley, oat and rye from Germania or further east along the Baltic shore (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).
One such change was represented by the increased importance of oats and barley while millet became less prevalent. To this should be added rye, which – although never of primary importance west of the Rhine in terms of hectares sown – became the bread corn par excellence in mountainous regions. While barley was used to brew beer, and oats to feed the necessary traction animals, rye was used for bread or gruel, supplemented by spelt, emmer or einkorn plus occasionally wheat where conditions allowed this. The general opinion, though, is that the composition of the different taxa differed from place to place according to local conditions – soil, elevation, humidity, climate.
Originally rye was a one-year plant. However, sometime around AD 400, when rye became prevalent in Russia, it transmuted into a special sort, able to survive for two years. Another quality of this sort was its capability to grow in the “sour” milieu, which occurs when land covered with spruce is slashed and burned. This so-called slash-and-burn-rye – svedjerug – was slowly adopted by settlers from Russia; from here it moved to Karelia and eastern Finland around AD 1000 to end up as the favourite bread-crop in middle Norway, Sweden and Finland until 1930. At that time it was called suvikas – with suvi meaning summer in Finnish. Another term was korpiruis – wild rye.
For a long time, it was believed this particular type of rye had been lost. However, in the 70s Per Martin Tvengsberg found ten grain-berries preserved in the floor in an old “rie” or in Finnish: riihi – a typical house dedicated to drying and preserving the harvest in Finland. Quite extraordinarily, he succeeded in getting seven of these grains to sprout. Since then, environmentally conscientious farmers in Scandinavia have adopted this particular type of rye.
It has been shown that this type of rye has several qualities. First of all, it is very generous as to the number of straws produced by each plant; this means that it can be sown sparsely. Four grains are enough for an area of a footprint, as each plant may produce many straws, each straw yielding perhaps up to 1:50 (that is, in the first year after the forest has been slashed and burned). Secondly it yields very long straw (2.5 m long) which would make it very useful for roofing, of weaving baskets. Third, it raises better than ordinary rye flour.
The way to sow slash-and-burn-rye (also called midsummer-rye) today – when slash-and-burn is universally prohibited – is to let a piece of land lie fallow during spring. Come summer, it can be sown with this type of rye. The first crop, which can be harvested in autumn, may be used as winter-fodder. During winter, the rye will sprout again, making it ready to be harvested the following year for its grain. In German this type of Rye is called Stauderroggen or Waldroggen. .
Delicious Nutty Bread
Since the miraculous find in Finland, this ancient type of rye has become a staple in households in Scandinavia interested in reliving ancient Nordic lives. Although the ancients regard it as in poor taste, it seems – to our modern palates – to be absolutely delicious with a nutty and sweet flavour . Another option is to cook it like rice and use it in pottage…
 The Food Project: Gamle danske nytteplanter. Af Østjyllands Spisekammer i samarbejde med Dansk Landbrugsmuseum. 2015.
Råg. Article in ”Kulturhistorisk leksikon for Nordisk Middelalder”. Rosenkilde and Bagger 1982.
Jordbruket under feudalismen 1000 – 1500.
By Janken Mydal
Natur och Kultur 1999
Harvesting ancient slash-and-burn Rye in Norway © Høstbergere (blog)
The Daily Bread
½ l of sourdough
1.5 kg rough rye flour
1.5 l tepid water
1 kg whole rye berries (rye kernels)
2 dl tepid water
6 teaspoons salt
1 dl water
1 tablespoon potato flour
- Mix the sourdough with the water and flour well and let it stand in a lukewarm place for at least 12 hours. The longer, the more “sour” the bread becomes. It should be slightly bobly on the surface.
- Next day mix the rye kernels and the tepid water plus the salt into the dough. Butter two to three baking tins, divide and put the dough in them. It should max go up 2/3 of the side. Glatten the surface of the bread with a spoon and prick it with a fork or knitting needle. Let the breads rise once more 4 – 5 hours.
- Bake the breads for 90 min at 175 o C.
- Take the breads out of the oven and turn it off. Baste them on the top with a mixture of 1 dl water and 1 tablespoon potato flour and return them to the now cooling oven. Let them cool off there. When cold, take them out of the tins and wrap the breads in a dry cloth and a plastic bag.
- Don’t eat of the bread until the next day.
This is a pure recipe in so far as there are no additives – no sunflower seeds, no mixture of rye and wheat or – as In central Europe – cumin. This is why it is called “The daily Bread” in Nordic context.