Today, after a very long break, I finally mixed a dough for two sourdough loaves. So I wanted to talk about bread.
Bread in the Soviet Union was very bad. We called it ‘the brick’. I think it was a little better by the time I came along in the 1980s, but before that my family says it was almost inedible. Mixed with maize flour a lot of the time, it was stiff like a coffin. So if you wanted bread, you would have to queue, sometimes for hours, for a brick of a coffin.
My grandmother Lyusya did not queue for bread. She did not actually bake loaves at all, but she did make a lot of flatbreads. She called them – korzhyky. They are what helped them survive the less talked about hunger years after WWII ended, specifically the 1947. She would bake a bunch of these flatbreads, using a bit of flour they managed to hide from the Soviet authorities (they were confiscating peasants’ supplies again like they did during Holodomor), and water, and give a few to my grandfather Viktor before he went to work (he was a truck driver for the village veterinarian). Once he came back home and dropped straight to the floor, she noticed just how emaciated he was. It turned out that before Viktor got to work he would give away all of his korzhyky to the children and women begging on the streets, there were so many of them. Once, when Lyusya put a plateful of korzhyky on the table a man ran in, eyes wild with hunger, she huddled the children behind her, straight-backed and defiant, but he did not touch them, he grabbed the breads and ran. In my research of the year 1947 in Mykolayiv – eye-witnesses said – “you ate if you stole”.
When things improved in the late 1950s, she was making the proper version of korzhyky, the one that I know well and have included in Mamushka the cookbook. They had a cow and two goats. She would let the raw milk go sour overnight, and she would use this sour milk to make the dough. She would use baking soda, the cheapest raising agent, to make them lighter. For other, usually festive, sweet baking she would have used fresh yeast.
But the generations before would have used ‘opara’ – a sourdough starter. When I travelled around Ukraine, recording recipes and stories for Summer Kitchens, people in the north of the country told me that they would make a rye bread using opara (usually made using a mixture of flour, water and hops). The way that they kept the opara was interesting, they said they would pinch off a piece of dough from the unbaked loaf, and they would stick this dough into the depths of a sack of rye flour. I guess the flour would dry it out, like we do when we would dehydrate a sourdough starter to make it last until you need it again?
But my family only started baking sourdough when we met a wonderful friend called Katrya Kaluzhna (she is @seldonenko on Instagram and she too has a fantastic Patreon platform). Katrya is actually from Kakhovka but we met online. She contacted me through Instagram and said she was a baker from Kakhovka. I was so surprised. We met and realised we had a friend in common – my English teacher Marina. Katrya has just set up a micro sourdough bakery from her house, and used to take loaves of sourdough to people on her bicycle. Her and her husband Sasha loved the outdoors, went on exciting trips to Moldova and Georgia and Western Ukraine, camping, kayaking, etc. I have never met Ukrainians like them before, especially not from my home town. Katrya met my mum too and they became friends. She gave my mum her sourdough starter, and mum started learning – from Katrya and from a couple of books I bought her (Tartine, Bertinet etc). Soon enough mum was producing beautiful loaves of sourdough.
I wanted to learn too! Mum gave me some of Katrya’s starter and taught me the basics. I started baking all the time, I was hooked. And my family loved the bread. Mum would bring solod from Ukraine – a powder that looks like cocoa but is actually rye malt made from fermented rye sprouts. It did smell like chocolate and would give our loaves the most beautiful mocha colour.
We baked and we baked and we baked.
the war started. When mum and dad had to flee Kakhovka, I was convinced that the sourdough starter would be something that my mum would pack into their car. But she didn’t. Perhaps it was too devastating, after all she was experiencing peak trauma. Perhaps she hoped she would come back soon enough. Meanwhile, I stopped eating and cooking myself, and soon enough my starter went pink and dead.
Time passed and when mum ended up at my cousin’s place in Berlin, she made a new starter and started baking, but sadly my cousin thought it was using up too much energy, the electricity bills were so high, so mum had to stop.
The brilliant Felicity Spector, kept going back to Ukraine and met our friend Katrya, who left Kakhovka the day after my parents did, and was now resettled in Lviv. I asked for a tiny bit of starter. She brought it, but I must have not been ready yet and it perished once again in the depths of my fridge.
Recently, Felicity went again and brought me another one – a dehydrated starter this time, not unlike in northern Ukraine, and I brought it back to live a week after my 39th birthday this July. I started feeding it, and putting the discard into a big tub – this discard makes amazing crackers when mixed with 10% of its weight in olive oil.
And today I am making bread! I found some solod tucked away in the cupboard and I am currently waiting for the dough to hydrate before I fold in the salt.
I have been thinking of Lyusya, my korzhyk-making grandmother a lot recently. Of all she’d been through, of all she endured, and how she came out of the other side – strong, even powerful, but also kind and fair and sometimes gentle. Before she died, she used to say – “I am not scared of death. What is death to me? When I am here, she is not, when she will come – I will not be here.” She died peacefully in her sleep almost 20 years ago.
I have been thinking of her, and also feeling very tired and very guilty of feeling so tired. Have they won? Have they exhausted us into inaction like they meant to? I decided that it was a ‘no’. This month, I will take a break, I will bake bread, I will listen to birds and crickets and to Wilf comic shouting “Oh Boooooooozhhhhhh [Oh my God]” when he sees something shocking or gross, I will hug my brother and I will hug my mum, and I will be sweet to Joe and will pay more attention to Sasha and Asya. Maybe we will bake some bread together, and maybe some korzhyky too.