21 September 2011

The Quick Loss of Good Russian Bread


Unlabeled unsliced bread in plastic wrap.  Baked in-house at Season Supermarket.

Missing wonderful bread...

Traditional bread is robust with texture, smell, and taste.  It’s a high point of our village summer.  But why is it more prevalent in Zaloz’ye than St Petersburg?  Maybe because change hasn’t much come to the village yet.

Bread is a sentimental icon of Russia.  Many writers state that Russians continue to have deep love for their historic bread.  It is symbolic of life and therefore should be treated with reverence, never played with.

Bread was missing in the famines of 1891, 1921, 1933 (The Holodomor)... the first partly caused by Tsarist ineptness, the others by the evil of communists, especially Stalin.  Bread was craved during the Leningrad Blockade.  1 



An expensive and confused product from Hlebny Dom (Bread House), a Finnish conglomerate that was the first to start selling sliced bread in Russia, around 1995.  The package says English Breakfast but has a Scottish plaid design.  Flavor not too bad, nor too good.

A switch to a market economy has changed much that can’t be undone.

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, most people have been too distracted to worry about preserving traditions. Russians like the range of new breads, some good, while others are obviously low nutrition bleached squishy soft bad buys.  This trend is parallel to what happened to food in the West.

Old time breads now have less shelf space, aren’t subsidized, and appear to have lost quality. I am surprised how easily a culture can put aside something considered precious for many years, shed nostalgia and turn to something new.  2,3

I think it’s a positive that, after 20 years of commercialism and chaos, classic breads can still be found in supermarkets.  But still, I can’t find any that match the texture, flavor, and smell of the grey bread we buy from our village autolavkas.  The best bread is made in a small bakery in Zabelina, the little town next to us.

One of life’s great pleasures...

It was in 1963 when visiting my aunt in Paris I realized food can be a great pleasure of life.  I was raised on soft doughy sliced bleached white bread and 1950s American cooking, with some Scottish dishes slipped in. 

I remember astonishingly good Parisian unsliced bread sold off the shelf with just its crust for pajamas ... and similar fabulous bread in 2000 St Petersburg. 

At dinner we still hold our bread in the left hand while using the fork with the right, and lean a piece against the plate when the left hand is busy.  The customs of eating bread remain, but is it of the same quality?  


What is Russian black bread?  Most recipes have both rye and all purpose unbleached wheat flour.  True Russian bread has close to 85% rye and may include fennel.  Some food blogs inaccurately refer to it as pumpernickel or sourdough bread.

Where can I buy ingredients such as unbleached stoneground rye and wheat flour, sourdough or active yeast starter, malt and spices?  Most of these ingredients are not available in local markets.  I need to take a taxi to Globus Foods.

What affects quality?  Good bread was subsidized during Soviet times and each variety had published baking standards, called GOCT.  The bread we bought from a local kiosk, even in 2000, was unsliced, aromatic, and full of flavor.  If bread is sliced, it must be wrapped, and then there’s an incentive to add preservatives and other unhealthful ingredients.

What are the differences between bread products?  

Can I bake it at home?   Why do very few city people bake their own bread?  For starters, communal apartments were not practical for baking at home, and besides bread was inexpensive when available.


Still plenty of traditional choices, but now most are sliced, and all are packaged in plastic.  Pyatorochka Supermarket.

Times change...

There are food blog posts on Russian traditional bread with beautiful illustrations, but most don’t mention how mediocre the bread market has become.

This month I’ve been looking around our two neighborhood  supermarkets, Pyatorochka and Seazon, and smaller grocery stores, checking for baking ingredients and which classic breads are still available.

I continue to ask Larissa questions about bread.  She thinks my question about bread color was intended to get a reaction... Why is black bread not, and grey bread not, too?

Some facts...

Russian butter is unsalted.

Many Russians know little about toast!

Black bread is for soups, and also served with the second plate of dinner.

White bread is for tea.

Russian bread often has no preservatives, so it may get moldy after a few days.

Waiting for toast to pop!

We enjoy toast.  The best bread for toasting anywhere is traditional village grey, which some identify as Ukrainsky bread, something close to what Americans call sourdough.

Becoming kneady...

Into our 10th floor kitchen... soon we go... to bake something like Russian bread!

Comments very welcome!

Can you think of examples of quick cultural loss in your country?  How do you feel about such changes?  Is it better to view these changes with acceptance or nostalgia?

More Information...

1 http://www.russkiymir.ru/russkiymir/en/magazines/archive/2011/04/article0021.html The Leningrad Blockade as remembered by one woman.

2 http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/20370/russian-sourdough-no-more  Lucifer posted about how bread has deteriorated in quality. Excellent comments follow.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101855310 NPR It Takes More Dough to Buy Russian Bread.  People are buying more meat, less bread.


  1. Hi, I'm a Russian from Seattle. Seattle is actually well known for it's food-educated people. We have artisan breads sold all over - even in the average cheap supermarkets, along with small bakeries and cafe's. So it's not all lost for America :). I'd say, people here mostly choose good bread over cheap bleached preserved crap. I'm not sure why. Maybe as a compensation for our poor weather? :)

    1. Hi Bopobyc,

      Maybe the high quality Seattle bread keeps the intelligence level high!

      Thanks for commenting.



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