Daiga Kunkulberga

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For thousands of years bread has been the basic value of our nutrition. However, recently, since we have started favouring various diets, bread is mentioned in just few of them. As if bread was the main reason why we gain weight. Has the time come for returning the preceding honour to bread? Let's speak about rye bread which is also referred to as black bread in Latvia. We asked Daiga Kunkulberga, D. Sc., Professor of the University of Agriculture of Latvia for an interview.

- Are Latvians the nation eating bread?

- In comparison to other European countries we take one of the top positions as regards eating bread. This is confirmed by serious research. However, the world changes and we do change as well. Forty years ago bread was perceived as a tasty snack by us. But we no longer ride horse carriages and we walk less. Children are sitting more at a computer instead of playing in a yard. Our eating habits have also changed. We have many other products in our food basket now, as the choice is much wider. However, this does not mean that bread has lost its value. 

- When we travel there are few places where rye bread can be bought, and even then it is not as tasty as ours.

- When we visit Latvians living abroad, whole-grain rye bread is among the most important snacks we bring. Everything depends on one's feeling of taste, of habits. The rye bread that can be bought there differs from what we have a lot. The rye bread baked in Latvia has a different, sweet and sour taste, a different aroma. Best bakers of bread in Latvia use ancient technologies for making rye bread. Even in Germany where there is the vastest range of bread in the world, ancient traditions of baking rye bread are followed by just few. I know this very well because I have had internship jobs in several German bakeries for a few years. Although, in ancient times Germans were the ones who established professional associations in Riga and taught us to bake bread.

- How can you explain this?

– Baking authentic rye bread is more expensiveIt is manual work to a large extent. The trough should be wooden, dough should be fermented longer, oven should be heated by firewood... It is faster and simpler to add wheat flour to rye dough. Bread becomes more porous and lighter. Rye bread is dark, heavy and slightly sour. When wheat bread is added, the specific aroma is lost, taste changes.

- Why is rye grown more than wheat in Latvia, and consequently - why is rye bread preferred to wheat bread?

- At the North part of Europe we eat more rye bread because rye grows better in our climate and have lower demands for growing. Rye is grown more in Northern countries because they don't need as much sun. A lot depends on climate conditions. Besides, rye accumulates less harmful substances, for example, mercury and lead from soil. When wheat is grown fields are often treated with plant protection products in order to fight against insects and diseases. Rye can do without it.

As we grow rye in Latvia we also bake rye bread. This is determined by tradition, our feeling of taste which has developed over centuries. Moreover, bread has been among the cheapest products for long years.

- Can we consider that rye bread is our national wealth?

– Exactly – this is our historical and culture heritage. We have the tastiest rye bread in the world. The symbol and pride of Latvia! It should be preserved. A lot depends also on sorts of rye used for baking bread. Flour is the main raw material for bread. The quality of flour depends on rye and the quality of bread depends on flour. Also barm is made of flour and water.

- What can we consider a true rye bread?

- Such bread should contain minimum 90 per cent rye flour. The more rye flour, the more sour the taste of bread. In Latvia the dark, aromatic, whole-grain or rough rye bread is traditionally considered true rye bread.

- How does whole-grain rye bread differ from rye bread?

- Everything depends on how fine flour is. Whole-grain bread is the bread baked of rough rye flour when the whole grain with its shell, endosperm and germ is milled. It is not correct to refer to bread where whole grain and seeds are added as whole-grain bread. It will be just bread with grain and seeds and not whole-grain bread.

- What other types of rye flour do we have?

- We can still enjoy the preserved historical Latvian names of various types of flour. Finely grinded /bīdelētie/ flour is finest. They are produced by keeping only the kernel of grain. Slightly more rough flour is referred to as pearled /skrotēts/ flour and rough flour is produced by milling the whole grain. In European countries there are divided in types of flour: the higher the number, the more grain shells flour contain and the more rough it is. The number indicates the amount of the so referred ash-substances. Rye sweet and sour bread is baked from finely grinded rye flour. It is lighter, more puffy, more fine and lighter than whole-grain rye bread. For example, in baking the famous carrot bread "Lāči" only pearled rye flour is used where 13-15% of grain shell has been milled, also pearled flour is added to dough.

- Which grain components are most healthy and more needed for a human body?

– Shells and the germ contain most valuable substances - fibre and minerals, there is protein in the germ, as well as B and E vitamins and plant oils. But we also need the pulp contained by the grain kernel or endosperm. This is the biggest part of the grain accounting for more than 80 per cent of the total grain mass. Also the kernel contains carbohydrates and minerals, however, their amount in the kernel is less than in the shell.

- Is it so that the darker rye bread is the more healthy it is?

- No, we cannot judge just by the colour of bread. The dark colour can also be obtained by adding the dark rye malt or malt extract to dough. When bread is baked in the Latvian bakeries most often rye malt flour is used. If no malt is added rye bread looks grey. Still, one should not exaggerate - if there is too much malt or flour is too much roasted bread can have a specific, not usual and even unpleasant taste. There are people who like this particular taste. They can buy the so referred malt bread, however, in Latvia just few bakeries bake it because there is little demand for it.

- It has been heard that when bread is cut the soft part should not stick to the knife or this bread is considered of low quality baking.

- This rule only applies to wheat bread. Rye bread may stick to the knife, especially when big loafs are made. If the barm has not been correctly made, the soft part of bread is sticky and forms loam. Loam also forms if flour is of a low quality and not suitable for baking bread. I think that aroma is the best indicator of the baking quality of bread. This will never deceive. Parboiling is the main indicator of stickiness of rye bread. This is done by pouring boiling water over usually 10% of the total volume of flour. Parboiling gives the natural sweet taste to bread, helps to keep it fresh longer. The negative issue is that the soft part is slightly sticky in the beginning and the productions costs are higher. Latvians have since long ago had rye bread and parboiled rye bread - made with parboiling.

- Sometimes bread is cracked. It is most characteristic for large size loafs.

- All bakers encounter the issue of bread cracking. There is a simple explanation. When bread is put into the hot oven the fermentation process continues. At the high heat (above 200 degrees) a crust forms fast around a loaf and the temperature inside the loaf is twice lower, fermentation continues for a while and crust cracks. Crust can crack if the over is too hot or too cold. It is particularly difficult to maintain the needed temperature in ovens fired with wood.

Moreover, the structure of fermented rye dough is weak. If the baker is not careful and is not sufficiently experienced, bread can reduce in shape as soon as it is put in the oven from the bread shovel. A lot depends on the baker's experience.

- Why does home-made rye bread often have cracked crust and still is more tasty than the industrially produced bread?

- The preparation process has a lot of impact, there is also a nice aroma spreading all over the house. The body is prepared for eating bread and waiting for it! Usually warm bread without any toppings can be eaten in bigger quantities than cold bread.

- Isn't it harmful? There is a bad feeling in the pit of the stomach later....

- It is allowed to eat also warm bread, but it should not be swallowed fast, it should be chewed well.

- What is the correct way of storing bread so that it does not get dry, mouldy, does not lose its nutritional value?

- In comparison to other basic products we consume, bread can be stored for a long period of time event at a room temperature without the fridge. Bread is baked in an oven where temperature exceeds 200 degrees. When it is taken out from the oven it is sterile, like at the surgery room. However, bacteria and fungus are all around us. They can access bread most easily when it is cut in slices.

The mould fungus does not like sour environment. The more sour bread is, the later it will get mouldy. Sometimes rye bread in slices can be stored longer than a loaf of wheat bread. Bread is protected also by its crust: the thicker it is, the longer it will protect bread. The package bag should be kept closed, or bread will get dry soon. Bread should not be kept in sunlight. It is very important to clean the bread box regularly because old bread bits negatively impact bread and it will get spoilt sooner.

- I know that Scandinavians often store bread in the freezer.

- It depends on shopping habits. I participated in an experience exchange trip to Finland and I know that Finns usually buy bread once a week, even more rarely. They store bread not in the fridge, but directly in the freezer where it is very cold. Latvian buyers buy bread almost every day or every second day. Then the fridge is not needed. If bread needs to be stored longer it should be kept in the freezer. It should be noted that rye bread loses its aroma and taste in the fridge, it becomes cold and slightly flat.

- Are people of Latvia educated buyers of bread? What do they pay major attention to when they buy bread, do they read labels on the packaging?

- A serious global survey of buyers of bread with 5000 respondents in ten countries attests that 53 per cent of buyers read information on the bread package label. 68 per cent choose bread with natural ingredients and 70 per cent take care that the product would not have food additives. The trend in Latvia is similar, and during recent years the number of buyers who read information on the label has increased. This attests that buyers have become smarter and more demanding.

- Can a buyer with a "naked eye" ascertain that good flour was used for baking bread, that it is valuable and healthy?

  • Bread bakers can only bake bad quality bread from bad quality flour, and, of course, all the bakers buy only good raw materials for baking bread. If something goes wrong during dough preparation or bread baking, this will be noticeable in the softness of bread. In this case the soft part of rye bread is most often sticky, dense, with a separated crust, and the taste of bread is flat or unpleasantly sour.

- Recently much has been read and heard about the harmfulness of bread crust. They say that carcinogenic substances form there during the burning process. The European Union even wanted to adopt a regulation making producers to bake bread for a shorter time, not allowing formation of a thick, dark crust.

- New methods of tests are being discovered lately and they help to learn what we had no idea about earlier. In 2002 Swedish researchers found that the component acrylamid forms in food products during heat treatment. In studies with rats who were given this substance pure one case of formation of cancer cells was identified. This is no surprise: food technology experts have known since long ago that a burning product forms in product which contains starch and little water at high temperature. In particular it refers to French fries. Acrylamid also forms in bread crust, therefore some researchers consider that eating it is not good for one's health. I think that the fear is exaggerated in this case. For example, cigarettes and coffee contain thousand time more acrylamid than bread crust. Many kilograms of bread shouls be eaten in order for the body to accumulate the quantity of acrylamid that would become harmful. Of course, one should not eat coal. Still I consider that the dieticians who advise to cut off all crust before eating bread are exaggerating. Also crust contains many valuable substances which are necessary for our body. Let's remember the folk song about the girl who was only eating bread crusts and this was the reason why she was so healthy and beautiful!

- The nutritional value of many products is lost during thermal treatment.

- This is not the story about bread! For example, the content of fibre does no change during baking bread. The amount of vitamins even increases during the fermentation process. It decreases a little during baking, thus returning to the initial level. Moreover, vitamins of group B are heat resistant. On one hand, burning end products form in bread crust and they are not desirable for a human body in big quantities, on the other hand, crust contains many biologically active components which are very valuable.  

Is bread recommended for all age groups? Including small children and elderly people?

- Yes, of course! Children love to eat bread. It is healthy, valuable, simple and good. I know many children who love to eat a slice a rye bread just like that, without any toppings. One should not be forced to eat bread with butter, with cheese. Children like to eat cheese separately, without bread and vice versa. In university I have noticed that students are gladly eating their sandwiches. Elderly people are advised to eat whole-grain rye bread. This will provide fibre to them and ensure an easier bowel emptying process.

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- What should be done in order to restore and maintain the habits of eating healthy bread in the society? How could rye bread be made appealing to the young generation?

- We should speak and write more about this. We should mention all the good substances people receive by eating bread. For example, I really like the marketing of "Lāču maize" - it is a nice card added to bread and a story coming with it. Everybody wants to read it!

Bakeries should be open more often, excursions should be organised, the baking process should be demonstrated and bread tasting should be arranged.

- What do Latvian school-children consider as healthy products nowadays? Is bread mentioned? Although - why should we guess? Let's ask! (In a while my friend's daughter, a student of the 4th grade at Aloja school, gives an answer: fruit, vegetables and honey is healthy).

This is what I expected - the girl didn't even mention bread. I think this is a typical answer.

- What could be the modern bread of future in your opinion?

- Everything new is a well-forgotten old - the same can be said about bread. We gradually return to the values that have passed tests. We will bake bread like it was done before  - without food supplements, improvers. Healthy, valuable and tasty. This is my future vision.