John Tradescant (the Elder) was a seventeenth century English horticulturalist and avid collector of anything and everything from the natural world. He travelled extensively in pursuit of his horticultural interests and his collections of curiosities. In 1618 he travelled to Russia, and on his visit to the Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery in the Artic city of Severodvinsk he was clearly intrigued by the predominance and ‘foolish fashions’ of the local rye bread.
For ther meat and bread, it is reasonable go[o]d; they have bothe wheat and rie bread, and is full as good os most places of Ingland dooe afford, only they never bake it well, and have many foolish fatyons for ther form of ther loafe, sum littil ons so littill as on may well eat a loaf a two mouthe full, other great onse but much shaped like a horse shooe, but that they be round, and a horse shoe is open in the on end; also they have a broune kind of rye bread, whiche is both fine and good. I have seen at the Inglishe house, and also in the Duche houses, Leeflanders so good bread as I have yet never seen the like in this contrie.
Another early explorer of Russia was the Patriarch of Antioch (Macarius III), who journeyed to Istanbul, Wallachia, Moldavia, Ukraine, and Muscovy in 1652-60 on a fund-raising mission. Their impressions and experiences were recorded by his attendant archdeacon (and son,) Paul of Aleppo. Paul makes a comment about the religious symbolic significance of rye bread in Russia, as well as the massive size in which loaves were sometimes made. The following paragraph is from the English translation of the text prepared by the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland in 1836.
It is the custom for the great and celebrated monasteries in this country, such as that of the Holy Trinity and others, to send to the Emperor, by the Archons of the monastery, who reside in their palaces of the city, as a blessing from them: first, a large black loaf of rye-bread, of the kind they use in the monastery, carried in the hands of four or five men, and looking like a large mill-stone; (this is considered a particular blessing, being of the very bread which the Fathers eat): ….
What was the English view of rye bread at the time? It was considered coarse fodder indeed, far inferior to fine wheat bread, and suitable only for those who worked at hard physical labour. The following comments are from Via recta ad vitam longam, by Tobias Venner, Doctor of Physicke (1628)
Bread made of Rie is in wholesomnes much inferiour to that which is made of Wheat: it is cold, heauy, and hard to digest, and by reason of the massiuenes [massiveness] thereof, very burdensome to the stomacke. It breedeth a clammie, tough, and melancholicke iuyce; it is most meete for rusticke labourers, for such by reason of their great trauaile, haue commonly very strong stomacks. Rie in diuers places is mixed with wheat, and a kinde of bread made of them, called Messeling-bread, which is wholesomer then that which is made of Rie, for it is lesse obstructiue, nourisheth better, and lesse filleth the bodie with excrements.
I thought that perhaps an even stronger opinion could be inferred from an entry in the Copious Dictionary in three parts, Francis Gouldman (London, 1664) which has “rie bread - panis fecalicius” but according to the Oxford English Dictionary an earlier use of the word faeces in English is “sediment; dregs, lees, subsidence, refuse.” Some more research is needed on the story of panis fecalicius (surely it should be panis fecaliceus, if anything?) – but it does appear to support the rather negative view of rye bread in England at the time, does it not?
The recipe for the day is from a century later than my story of today, but brings another perspective to the art and history of bread-making. From The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1778):
The manner of making the Russian rye bread. —In the morning they mix as much rye flour with warm milk, water, and a bason full of grounds of quass, or leaven, as will make a thin dough, and beat it up for half an hour with the chocolate staff before described; this they set in a warm place till night, when they add more meal by degrees, working it up at the same time with the staff, till the dough becomes stiff. They then return it to its warm situation till morning, at which time they throw in a proper quantity of salt, and work it with the hand into a proper consistence for bread, the longer this last operation is continued the better; they then place it before the fire till it rises, when it is cut into loaves, and returned once more into the warm place where it before stood, and kept there for an hour before the last part of the process, the baking, which completes it.*
*This is the very same process as is used in the north of England, for the like purpose, and probably in all other countries where rye-bread is used.
The “chocolate staff,” according to the paragraph previous to the above is “a machine resembling the staff of a chocolate pot, but larger” used in the preparation of the all-purpose fermented beverage quass.