Not just a grain but a whole lifestyle, rye has been part of the Finnish diet for 2000 years. The word in Finnish "ruis" emerged from the Prussian "rugis," and during the 17th century, Finland was an important producer and exporter of rye to the Nordic region. Because of the crops ability to grow in harsh conditions and poor soil, it thrived and became a staple grain.
Rye was a symbol of prosperity for 1500 years, blooming until the 1880s. And bread is the leading vehicle in this abundance trail: water, leaven (known as leivän juuri), salt and rye flour. Sometimes yeast is added. And that's it. The leaven is a topic by itself, as many people, families, and towns have their own starter to share with more than 50 years old.
And shapes and names are also symbols of regionalities and cultures. Eastern Finland calls its ruis a limppu, a round loaf. The Western part has a flat disc with a hole in the middle to be hanged and known as ruisreikäleipä. There's also flatbreads, mostly connected to the Nordic tradition, and made not just with rye but other flours, such as barley, oats, and wheat.
Finnish rye bread is lighter than varieties from Germany and the Baltic Region and considered to be less sweet than similar Swedish bread. It can be enjoyed as a sandwich, dipped in soup, or simply with some butter on top. It matters less how you eat it and the shape it comes, and more about how Finns look at this tradition. It's all about a bond created when rye bread became part of the country's identity.
When Finns travel, they miss the bread of their hometown and look forward to finding a good bakery near them. The locality is significant, as people try to find something familiar, a taste to make them feel they found their "spot." But most bread cultures in Europe have a similar nostalgia when it comes to flavours that remind them of a place, a situation, someone. And Finns are no different. They want their special rye bread.
Rye culture is also linked to the Finns' physical strength, working in the past mostly with agriculture and heavy machinery. In fact, rye has four times more soluble fiber than wheat, which builds up energy. Three pieces of wholemeal rye bread contain up to 12 g of fiber, while the daily recommended consumption is around 25 to 35 g. Studies show that whole grain rye protects against cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and intestinal cancer.
In 2017, Finnish people chose rye bread as the national dish, competing with other favorites as Karelian pies, pea soup, and fried vendace. The consumption of rye in Finland lies in 16 kg per person in a year, and the production of rye proves how vital the crop is. In 2020 the harvest is expected to be around 70 million kilos, not covering the annual need of 100 million kilos of rye for food production. The variation in rye harvesting is very common, mainly due to changes in cultivation areas.
And not just bread is made out of rye, but also spirits. Finnish whisky made out of rye is a novelty of this century, and it's building its way not just in Finland, but also in international markets. "Other rye products are different kinds of snacks (for example rye chips) which are regarded as a good and healthier option for potato chips. Malted rye, a traditional Finnish Easter dessert made from rye flour, is also part of Finnish food culture and a very well known healthy rye product" says Terhi Virtanen from Leipätiedotus, an informational service about rye bread and health.
Rye bread is more than food, but a symbol of the Finnish identity and a reminder of the past. It's a strong outcome of the harsh weather and the agricultural conditions, a cultural bridge builder, an icon made with just four simple ingredients.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons