New York City's Russian population has an appetite for dense, dark, whole-grain bread, which is a staple of Russian cuisine. South Brooklyn, where most Russians live, probably has more bakeries per square mile than any other part of the city. These range tiny mom-and-pop bakeries to sprawling commercial bakeries producing an impressive variety of loaves in style of the Old Country.
One of the best places to see this bounty is in the bread aisle of Brighton Bazaar, arguably the city's best Russian market. And at the Bazaar's bread counter a few steps away, you can buy aromatic, freshly-baked, glistening brown loaves coming straight from...Germany!?
At first glance, it seems insane that a Brooklyn Russian market would import its bread all the way from a city in western Germany called Bielefeld (which may or may not exist). At second glance, however, it does make a certain sense. Germans love bread, particularly fresh-baked loaves and rolls for their light evening meals. Over the last decade, big German bakeries have become experts at the "par-baked" (i.e. partially-baked) bread business, selling frozen, half-baked loaves for reheating in nearly every supermarket and grocery store. To the rest of Europe, German bread has a reputation for being healthy, nutritious, and whole-grain. So it's natural for the Russians here to have a taste for German bread, particularly the low-priced, fresh-baked loaves sold at the Brighton Bazaar.
Most of the loaves at the Bazaar's bread counter range from dark to darkest, dense to densest. My tastebuds were immediately drawn to the crustiest and gnarliest loaves. However, the Crusty loaf, with its dramatic scoring and white-floured crust, turned out to be not as flavorful as the Farmer Rusty ($4.99) bread ("rusty" may be a mistranslation of "rustic"). Like most of these loaves, this is a rye/whole wheat mix, though its pleasant, slightly crumbly texture leads me to believe that there might also be cornmeal in the blend. On the coarse side there's the Organic Rye Mix ($2.99), which is adorned with one of those Old World paper bread labels, this one signifying its European Union organic certification.
In the smooth crust category, I savored the Country loaf ($4.99), another wheat/rye mix, which had a slight but lovely aroma of hay when first sliced. However, like many of these loaves, its aroma dissipated over the next day or so, leading me to wonder if the freezing process tends to retard the flavor. Nevertheless, the Country has a dense but smooth texture that makes it a perfect base for juicy meats like pastrami and corn beef.
To cater to Eastern European tastes, the Bazaar's bread counter offers a number of extra dark and dense loaves. The standout was the Lithuanian Rye with sunflower seeds ($3.99), a heavy, near-black bread absolutely packed with sunflower seeds. Their nutty flavors the dark rye sour, while the seed oil adds a slight unctuousness to the crumb's texture. It's a perfect base for salty smoked fish washed down with a shot of icy vodka.
If you can't get to Brighton Beach, you can also head west to buy these loaves, because it appears that Hoboken's Old Germany Bakery orders its bread from the same source.