an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Tallinn’s Glorious Sourdough Reformation


There’s always something in the air. And that something almost always includes a few spores of wild yeast. These days, some of those activist spores are helping to foment Tallinn’s sourdough reformation. In this northern land, long ruled by black bread (leib), being a sourdough (hapusai) reformer is not without its risks ….

While Estonia may have a reputation for being the world’s least religious country, it is home to the Cult of Leib.  I know this because I joined this Cult the moment I tasted my first bite of Orissaare leib. My Nordic Y chromosome immediately embraced this northern culinary belief system at the genetic level. After all, my paternal ancestors ate their daily leib for a couple thousand years, and so its very taste must have been hard-wired into my DNA. As a result, I understand why Estonians are so quick to dismiss white bread (sai) – especially the mass-produced variety that has been made ever since we turned the baking of bread over to machines in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Even in the United States, the very words white bread have come to mean plain, bland, boring, conventional – or nothing even remotely exciting.

And yet, long before this industrial white bread ever came into existence – long before we started bleaching and processing our wheat flour to remove any traces of nutrients or taste, there was another kind of bread known simply as “bread.” This bread was the world’s very first bread. And this bread was a sourdough (hapusai) – a bread that has been around for at least 6,000 years. And thanks to my Mediterranean X chromosome, my body was wired to enjoy sourdough even earlier than rye. In fact, I can think of few things that taste better than a piece of freshly baked sourdough along with some with fresh butter.

The world’s first farmers domesticated wild Emmer and wild Einkorn wheat in the Fertile Crescent over 11,000 years ago. At first, that wheat was used for making a kind of porridge (puder) – a breakfast still hugely popular among Estonians although in the United States we seem to have swapped out most of our hot cereals for room temperature ones in the interests of saving time. In any case, our daily servings of cereal would still be recognizable as a meal for someone living off the fertile lands of the Levant back in 9000 BCE. We have always been what we eat.

But then one day everything changed after a bowl of that early wheat porridge – the only early grain with enough of the right proteins to make gluten – must have been left somewhere, unconsumed. After wild yeast spores settled on the porridge, it started to leaven, turn sour, and then rise. Was the resulting dough thrown away into the fire – only to be removed from the ashes somewhat later? Or, more likely, was food so precious that someone decided to recook their forgotten porridge only to watch in surprise as it rose and then became an early version of what we now know as bread? We’ll probably never know the true origins of that very first loaf of sourdough – or the origins of the first sourdough starter – which, if properly fed, can last for years and even be passed from generation to generation.

By the time the Egyptians started building their first great pyramids about 5,000 years ago, sourdough was already being made in vast quantities as it was used by the pharaohs to feed the workers who built their monuments. To wash down their bread, these workers drank beer made from another early grain – barley – domesticated around the same time as wheat and also fermented with yeast. But it was sourdough that fueled the rise of what we call Western civilization. The Roman Army conquered the “Known World” powered by their daily bread ration – while their unruly relatives back home where kept under control by “bread and circuses.” Jesus would then feed the multitudes with a few loaves of sourdough while equating himself – his body – with bread. The Lord’s prayer even includes the key line: “Give us this our daily bread.” Where would we be then without bread?

For generation upon generation, mothers leavened their bread with their own homegrown sourdough starter even if that bread was baked in another baker’s oven. Proper bread has always been made from just four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt, and sourdough starter. As the Industrial Revolution transformed and then tamed the wild bread making process, people abandoned their sourdough starters. In the United States, where industrialization started back East and then slowly spread West, only a few small bubbles of the original sourdough tradition have survived – mainly along the West Coast from San Francisco, California to Nome, Alaska. Interestingly, these were the very same places where gold prospectors flocked to in the mid-1800s just ahead of the Industrial Revolution’s advancing steam roller. Besides their rifle and their mining equipment, a miner’s other essential tools included his cast iron skillet (or Dutch oven) and his sourdough starter. To this day, you can still find sourdough starters out West that can trace their lineage back almost 150 years to the Gold Rush. I know this as I’ve met the American answer to the Cult of Leib – the Sourdough Evangelists – who are always happy to share a communion-wafer-shaped piece of their favorite dried sourdough starter with anyone willing to accept it and promise to keep the culture alive.

As I was preparing to move back to Estonia, I started thinking that I would have to leave the Sourdough Fold. Either that or I would have to finally start my own starter and launch my own sourdough strain. I’d managed to survive my stint in the UK as I’d found two bakeries that were baking sourdough as good as anything on the West Coast of the United States: San Francisco-inspired Brick House Bakery in south London’s lovely East Dulwich neighborhood and the appropriately named Baltic Bakehouse in Liverpool’s up-and-coming Baltic Triangle. And then, lo and behold, as I was walking down Kotzebue Street while visiting Tallinn during Kalamaja Days in spring 2017, I smelled that wonderful and unmistakable smell of real sourdough. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame or a bee to honey. Moments later, I found two guys selling sourdough bread from a bread rack and immediately bought my first two loaves – one each of their spelt and buckwheat sourdough. I took the loaves home with me, grabbed some Saaremaa butter out of the refrigerator, and tried them both. The bread tasted just like San Francisco sourdough – with a nice crunchy crust and a moist, slightly sour interior. I immediately became a fan of Kotzebue Bakery – choosing their spelt sourdough as my first go-to sourdough because it tasted just a little more West Coast than their buckwheat version. And as I enjoyed Kotzebue’s sourdough, I just simply couldn’t fathom why one of the Industrial Revolution’s goals was to remove the sour taste from the bread. It is the sour that makes the bread real.

Returning to Tallinn in the fall, I set off to find Kotzebue Bakery as the two bakers I’d met during Kalamaja Days had told me that their new place was just down the street. Of course, their bakery turned out to be hidden away in the alley behind Kotzebue Street but I was able to find it just by following the smell of freshly baked sourdough. Once your body becomes wired for sourdough, you’ll be able to track the smell anywhere. At first, I was surprised when the friends I had told about Kotzebue couldn’t find the bakery. Yes, the bakery was hard to spot at first with your eyes. But who needs eyes when you have a nose to show you the way? Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread. In addition to its two main sourdoughs, Kotzebue Bakery (yes, they use the English word bakery) also makes a nice potisai (“pot bread” or the same kind of bread that a Gold Rush miner would have made in his Dutch Oven), as well as an Estonian leib and a French brioche (which spawned the saying “let them eat cake”). Do try them all and find your own personal favorite.

Some people say that good luck tends to come in threes. And nothing here in Estonia ever seems to happen in isolation. And so, it should come as no surprise that 2017 saw the rise of not just one but at least three new artisanal sourdough bakeries. In addition to Kotzebue Bakery, Tallinn’s other new bakers of true bread include Crustum out in Mustamäe and Røst in the Rotermann Quarter. Crustum’s French-trained baker seems to be focused on making a more Mediterranean-friendly sourdough. After all, crustum is one of the Latin words for bread – or indeed any pastry, bun, or other dough baked in an oven. Crustum is also the root of the English-language word crust – that deliciously crunchy outer shell on any good loaf of bread. Fortunately, there sometimes really is truth in advertising: Crustum’s sourdough has an amazingly crunchy crust which would be reason alone to buy their bread. My favorite of the sourdoughs they bake is their most Roman one – the one with olives in it. You might also want to try their other sourdoughs from their regular version to their one with walnuts. For those Cult of Leib loyalists, Crustum also makes a very nice leib – I prefer their version to Muhu’s as they use a lot less sugar in their regular, seeded, and hazelnut black bread loaves. Unless you happen to be passing by their bakery out in Mustamäe, Crustum can be a bit difficult to find – although it is almost always available at Eugenio’s at BJT or at Juustukuningad (the Cheese Kings Store) in Solaris. Do be sure to give Crustum a try.

However, if you were to ask me to pick a favorite Tallinn sourdough, my answer might vary on any given day based on the baker, the oven, and the weather (not only the temperature but the amount of humidity in the air can affect the rising and therefore the ultimate taste of a sourdough). Flavors, after all, change and evolve. For example, I enjoyed Kotzebue’s sourdough even more when it tasted a bit rougher and more like San Francisco or before it became more refined after some additional training in France. And so, week in and week out, I would have to say that Røst has now become my Tallinn sourdough of choice – even if this Nordic-inspired bakery always refers to their sourdough loaves by the French word levain. This same French word seems to be popular among those new bakeries on the East Coast of the United States who have recently become part of the sourdough reformation. Given my West Coast connection, I’ll stick with “sourdough” as there is no need to use any fancy French words to get me to buy a loaf of good bread. Røst, incidentally, also bakes loaves flavored with sesame seeds, walnuts, or even mustard.

For my fellow Cult of Leib loyalists, please allow me to become a Sourdough Evangelist without getting burnt at the stake. After all, the best type of leib is surely a peenleib made from its own version of a sourdough starter. Right? And so, if you haven’t already become a sourdough (hapusai) follower and want to give the world’s original bread a try, here is what I recommend that you do: go to Røst the next time you’re in downtown Tallinn and buy a loaf of their levain. You may want to time your arrival to coincide with their morning bake (around 9 AM in the morning or 10 AM on Saturdays) or their afternoon bake (around 2 PM). While you’re there, you can also pick up one of their cinnamon or cardamom buns – plus they also bake the most amazing pastries filled with goat’s cheese, apricot jam, crisp serrano ham, and rosemary – Tallinn’s absolute best baked savory-sweet taste explosion. And if you happen to arrive at Røst after they’ve baked one of their wonderful date and crunchy walnut muffins, don’t pass that one up either!

But getting back to Røst’s hapusai: take your bread back to the privacy of your own home. Try to get there while your bread is still warm. Slice your bread and then spread some fresh Saaremaa butter on it. Take a bite. Now tell me, is there anything that could possibly taste better? Can’t you just taste the 10,000 year history of human civilization in every bite? I sure hope so.

Sadly, even the very best sourdough has a much shorter life span than a normal loaf of leib. And so, you should always start off by eating the two ends of your hapusai first while the crust is still at its crunchiest. Besides the bread and butter basics above, sourdough also make a great sandwich and even better toast. The clue is right there in Røst’s logo – an iconic slice of toast. In any case, if you have any sourdough left over at the end of the day you bought it, I would recommend that you cut off as much as you plan to eat the next day and then freeze the rest. Eat your saved sourdough the next morning as toast. (BTW I’m still waiting for Tallinn to get its first real breakfast joint. For those thinking about opening such a café, here’s a suggestion for you: Liverpool’s hipster Baltic Bake House – among other such breakfast joints – puts toasters on each table so that you can toast your own sourdough before spreading it with butter, honey, or their homemade preserves. Now that is one basic breakfast that’s hard to beat.) If you do end up freezing any of your sourdough loaf, treat it like you would a bagel: thaw it in the refrigerator overnight before dropping it into your toaster the next morning. Yes, hapusai does not keep as well as leib but there are ways to resurrect it and bring it back to life. So, no matter how much you may be devoted to your one true leib, do give sai another chance – although make sure it is a true sai – a hapusai. If you do, you’ll find that there has always been something special in the air around you. And if you find that you really like this hapusai, please spread the good word about this good bread to others. Long live Tallinn’s glorious sourdough reformation!


Image: A Hutsul woman baking bread in her decorated Hutsul oven (pichka) made by Kosiv master ceramicist Ivan Riopka. 

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