The Central European culinary tradition in New York is on the ropes. Sure, we have a few good Austrian restaurants, and nouveau beer halls have started popping up. But the people who supply the raw materials, the smoky cured meats and dense breads, are fast disappearing. There's only one old-time bakery left that still makes dark, sour German and Lithuanian ryes in the city. It hides in a corner of Corona, Queens, surrounded by taquerias and Ecuadorian eateries. One of the Silver Bell Bakery's customers is so addicted that every week he drives 10 hours round-trip from Saratoga Springs just to get his bread. By the end of the summer, Silver Bell is going to move out to the suburbs, following its customer base. So get it while you can.
Silver Bell Bakery was opened back in 1882 in Williamsburg by "Pop" Bachunas, a young immigrant from Lithuania. He became known for his light and dark Lithuanian breadsmade using "sour," a kind of sourdough leavening imported from the old country. The breads baked at Silver Bell today are still made from descendants of that sour. In 1970, Pop Bachunas's grandson moved the bakery out to its current building on the border between Corona and Elmhurst, where there still was a large Central European population. Today the bakery is run by Albert Radziunas, great-grandson of the founder. Although the walk-in trade has almost dried up at the store, he still does good business selling wholesale to ethnic markets and mail order to customers all around the country.
Rye bread, made from Pop Bachunas's recipe, is the glory of the Silver Bell Bakery. The loaves come with paper "Silver Bell" tags baked onto the crust, sort of like a cattle brand. Their sizes range from little one-pound loaves to big 12-pounders that you could use as spare tires on your Smart Car. Both the light and dark ryes have glossy, chewy crusts and dense crumb with a lovely mouthfeel. These are not yeasty loaves; their flavor comes from the faint sour tang behind the rye flavor. They're equally good with butter and jam or as a base for a thick smear of liverwurst. Some of the dark ryes are baked on cornmeal, with more meal sprinkled on the top for added crunch and flavor. For the health conscious, Silver Bell also makes a delicious whole grain rye, like German health bread with sunflower seeds, oat and wheat bran, and so on. (One bread you can't find there is the deli-style caraway seed rye that's been so debased by big commercial bakeries.)
With the German and Lithuanian markets shrinking, Silver Bell has expanded its customer base by making artisan breads, including pecan-raisin and cranberry-raisin loaves and "superseed" health baguettes. Behind the modern recipes, however, you can still taste the tang of Pop Bachunas's sour. It also has expanded into the Eastern European market by developing Xleb Babuni, or "grandmother's bread," a Polish style rye popular in Greenpoint, as well as a Russian farmer's rye that's sold in Brighton Beach.
Silver Bell is known for its bread, but its ovens also churn out sweet breads that are sold under its Albie's label. Most of these are babkas, rugelach, and poppy seed or almond rolls. But for Easter, the bakers make a traditional cake that the ladies behind the counter call a "high babka." My mother was the daughter of Russian immigrants, so we call this Easter bread "kulich." It's made from a sweet, egg-based dough that's baked in a big old tin can (coffee cans are the best), so it comes out tall and bulgy at the top. Anthropologists have pointed out the connection between the bread's phallic shape and Spring fertility rituals. As a kind of modest covering for the bread, Eastern Europeans top it with white icing, sprinkles, jelly beans, Easter eggs and the like. Sweet old babushkas like to nibble on it between sips of tea.
For the next few months, you can still buy Silver Bell breads at its Corona store. After it moves, they still will be sold at area markets, including the East Village Meat Market (139 2nd Avenue), the Hungarian Meat Market (1560 2nd Avenue), and in many ethnic food stores in Greenpoint and Brighton Beach.