In the New World, Eastern Europeans still cling to their traditional dark and heavy rye breads. In 1949, John Melngailis and his Latvian family arrived here from a displaced persons camp in Germany. They ended up in a remote area of Western Pennsylvania, where the only bread available was Sunbeam—white, bland, and spongy. Somehow, John's mother acquired a bushel of rye grain and gave it to a local farmer to grind in his feed mill. She began making make dense rye bread just like back she ate back in Latvia and didn't stop until she died 46 years later.
Today, John Melngailis is a partner in Black Rooster Food, which makes and sells unapologetic Latvian rye just like his mother's. The first thing you notice about his Baltic Rye is that it's heavy and dense. A whole loaf weighs five pounds and is enough to feed a party of 50. Luckily, it's sold in 17-ounce sections that can keep a family in canapés for at least a week. The Baltic Rye's crust is as black as coal but surprisingly not bitter, while the crumb is tightly packed and a bit moist. It's made from 100 percent rye flour, sourdough leavening, rye malt, sugar, salt, and caraway seeds. It's almost pungent with rich rye aromas backed by the faint tang of caraway. The touch of sugar mellows the slight bitterness of the rye. The best way to enjoy it is sliced thinly (a sharp knife is best) and then slathered with good butter and topped with smoked fish. Smokey, salty, sweet, bitter, unctuous—it's the total package.
John got into the bread business simply because he wanted a steady supply of good rye bread. After a couple of years buying loaves straight from the source in Latvia, in 2006 he and a partner founded Black Rooster Food to import Eastern European ryes and sell them through Whole Food stores around Washington, D.C. (In his other life, John is a professor at the University of Maryland.) Then the value of the dollar dropped, and they had to close that business.
But John knew that South Brooklyn was full of Russians and Russian bakeries that catered to their particular tastes. He knew that New York Bread in Coney Island sold "Latvian-style" bread, but he wanted one made with 100 percent rye flour. They said, "It's impossible!" Still, he gave them an imported loaf, and they began to experiment. After four tries, John says, "They nailed it." Baltic Rye was born.
Black Rooster Food relaunched early in 2009 with just that one, Brooklyn-baked product. However, in a few weeks they're going to start selling a 100 percent rye fruit and nut bread. An advance taste reveals that it's a perfect breakfast bread or base for a slab of pungent cheese. Thick with raisins, apricots, and whole hazelnuts, a thin slice will keep you going for the whole day.