Even here in Tallinn – almost 20 years after it last vanished from the shores of Estonia forever, I still dream of Orissaare leib. In case you’ve never been, Orissaare is a small town on the east coast of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. It was the hometown of Adele, one of my favorite Estonian-born co-workers at the Library of Congress. During her long U.S. exile, she often dreamed of her home island’s leib – and that is how she came to share her dream with me. I’m not surprised. When I finally visited her island home, I discovered that the town’s bakery made the most amazing bread I’ve ever eaten: Orissaare leib.
Anyone who has ever visited Estonia and has shown any interest in learning even a few words of Estonian is quick to understand that the language has two very different words – or dare I say it, concepts – for bread: leib means authentic black bread while sai is used to refer to white or sweet bread which is a more recent import and is therefore considered to be inherently inferior. As a result, it is often relegated to a kind of second-class culinary status. Leib is the true Estonian bread. Indeed, leib is such an integral part of Estonian culture and national identity that Estonia’s top living writer Andrus Kivirähk seems to take an inordinate amount of pleasure in poking fun at this national obsession with leib in his brilliant novel The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2007 – but not published in English translation until 2015). After all, as Kivirähk implies, leib was most likely brought to Estonia’s shores by Teutonic knights. And yet, once you’ve had your first bite of real Estonian leib, you might well become an instant convert to the new Estonian ways and be ready to move to one of her towns.
My personal conversion happened the very moment I tried my first piece of Orissaare leib on Saaremaa, covered with some fresh local butter. To set the record straight, Orisssaare leib was actually a peenleib (or a sourdough black bread made from Estonian rye flour with some extras mixed in). Orissaare leib tasted truly amazing – a bit sweet, a bit sour, just a little bit salty, and always fully flavored with just the right amount of chew to create that perfect mouth feel. Orissaare leib was a true gift for the palate. The bakery should have been declared a national treasure and the bread itself was worthy of its own appellation. Orissaare leib was the kind of agricultural product to which the EU would have granted a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). I’ve missed Orissaare leib ever since the town bakery shut down in the mid-1990s. And so have my friends. I just can’t imagine the sadness that the residents of Orissaare must feel.
Last year, one of my Saaremaa friends from the opposite end of the island, tried to track down the Orissaare baker for me as part of my quixotic quest to bring his leib back to life. As it so often happens on the island, one contact led to another until she finally was able to track down the baker’s widow in Orissaare. Yes, the baker had died – taking all his Orissaare leib secrets with him. When asked what her husband the baker put into his amazing bread, the widow cheerfully replied: “oh, the recipe was so simple: just flour, water, and salt.” If you’ve ever tried to make bread on your own, you will understand that these three simple ingredients can produce the most amazingly different and complex results.
So, was it the water in Orissaare which made the bread taste so good? Or maybe it was the local rye flour that he used – perhaps mixed in with a bit of another flour or two? More than likely it was his sourdough starter which breathed in the island air. I have a memory – and I’m pretty sure it’s not a false one – of reading the ingredients list for Orisssaare leib and I swear that there was some potato starch in there somewhere along with a touch of beet sugar. I kick myself for not keeping that label – but how was I to know that Orissaare leib would one day be lost to the world forever? At least with a label, I might have had a fighting chance to hack the recipe. As peenleib uses a starter, his pre-ferment may well have included not just yeast and sugar but perhaps even some raw Orissaare milk. But then, was the mother dough he used days, weeks, months, maybe years, or perhaps even decades old? How could you ever hope to replicate that? And then what about the baker’s magic hands which created a new wonder every time he mixed flour and water together? Guess I will just have to wait for someone on Saaremaa to rediscover Orissaare leib for me ….
After Orissaare leib disappeared from Saaremaa’s stores (it was never available on the mainland), I went in search of a new favorite leib. For a while, Pädaste Manor’s impressive leib – baked just across the sound from Orissaare on Muhu Island – did the trick. One of the times my parents came to visit me in Estonia, I took them to Pädaste Manor to eat at their wonderful restaurant and enjoy their impressive leib. And for a while after that, you could even buy Pädaste leib at Tallinn’s Kaubamaja grocery store. Every time I would visit Tallinn, I would be sure to buy a few loaves of Pädaste leib to take back to Russia with me. These days, you can no longer find fresh Pädaste leib on the mainland. At some point, the manor’s off-shoot bakery – Pädaste Gourmet – must have realized that they could make much more money from the dried & sliced version of their bread (Pädaste leiva õhikud) while minimizing wastage at the same time. And so, for a few more years after that, I would buy myself a consolation prize of some dried Pädaste leib slices so that I could try to re-imagine the taste of a fresh loaf – even if it was never quite the same – especially after their dried bread began losing its crunch.
Not too long ago, I became a fan of the kindred Muhu leib – now made on the Estonian mainland – after I had my first try at Kalamaja Days a few years ago. The new bakery brought out dozens of free loaves and put them out for the Long Table Party on Vana-Kalamaja Street as a very successful promotional stunt. My first bite of Muhu leib was sensational – it tasted almost like cake. After I read the ingredients and learned about Muhu leib’s sugar content, it was then clear why. Yet these days, whenever I want to recapture that feeling, I’ll still pick up a half-loaf of Muhu raisin leib and eat a couple of slices for dessert, covered with some fresh Saaremaa butter.
The other thing I do from time to time when I need a proper fix of leib is to go to my favorite Estonian restaurant on Uus 31 – a restaurant that goes by the very name of Leib in order to celebrate Estonia’s staff of life. As you might expect, Leib’s homemade leib is top notch. It also doesn’t hurt that their leib is always freshly baked just for them. For dessert, I usually only order one thing: their crème brûlée prepared with dried leib crumbs. While it might sound strange to the uninitiated, it truly tastes great. And if Leib happens to be serving some of their homemade leib ice cream, you may also want to try a scoop of that. But enough of Leib (the restaurant that is) as it will likely end up as the subject of another story.
And so, my quest for the perfect new Estonian leib continues. Whenever I can, I ask my Estonian friends what leib they are eating these days and then go and give that loaf a try. And every time a new bakery opens in Tallinn – from Kotzebue Bakery in my neighborhood of Kalamaja to Crustum in faraway Mustamäe, I’m also quick to test their leib as soon as it goes into production. Yet when I compare the taste of any one of these breads to the taste of Orisssaare leib still lingering on my mental palate, they all inevitably fall short. After all, what can possibly compete with the memory of the perfect Estonian leib which was once known by the name of Orissaare leib?
Image: Copy of an ancient Trypillian grain pot (potter unknown).