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Our Daily Bread (2005)

This was written as a forward to a book about Latvian bread.

Latvians won’t serve a meal without it, the Clintons ate it in the White House, and now there’s a book that extols all its tasty, textural and aromatic virtues. Bread may be the staff of life for people around of world, but for Latvians it is also the stuff of folklore, tradition and culture. Not to mention international diplomacy.

Indra Čekstere explores all the traditions that go into the preparation, baking, serving and celebrating of Latvian bread in a beautiful new book called ‘Our Daily Bread – The Tradition of Latvian Baking.” This large format, full colour coffee table book features hundreds of stunning photographs and illustrations, and a charmingly informative text about the people, places and customs connected with the uniquely Latvian passion of bread baking.

While bread is the main story of the book, ÄŒekstere tells it through the stories of the men and women who bake it. Her narrative (in English and Latvian) moves through the various regions of Latvia, including Kurzeme, Zemgale, Vidzeme, Latgale and Selija, describing how the farmers, bakers and grandmothers from each region prepare their special loaves.

Each regional type of bread is described through recipes, as well as the local rituals, customs, folk songs and fairytales that accompany it. Both historical and contemporary photographs of Latvian fields, farmhouses, hearths and holiday celebrations show the settings in which each regional bread is prepared, served and eaten. Informative illustrations reveal the wide array of wooden farm tools and kitchen implements that are used in the traditional sowing, harvesting and baking process.

Čeksteres warm, first person narrative is filled with delightful stories and customs, including this one that describes how a Kurzeme grandmother uses her hand to etch a special symbol on top of  each loaf:

“”See, you cross a loaf with the outer edge of your right palm. Pressing the first line you say: do not let it burn! Pressing the second you say: do not let it stay raw! Then with your index finger you draw four lines crossing the ends of the bigger ones saying: enough for the beggars, enough for the travellers, enough for the little children, enough for ourselves!”

There are even detailed blueprints of a bread oven in a house in Piebalga and a map showing the different signs and symbols used on loaves in the various regions of Latvia.

The book is sure to be a big hit with the growing number of tourists, business travellers and diplomats that are coming to Riga and looking for something new and interesting as a gift.  If up until now, you’ve only eaten bread but never thought much about it, Čekstere’s lively collection of anecdotes, wives tales, superstitions and sayings will have you leafing from page to page in search of more totally fascinating tidbits of Latvian bread trivia. The accompanying illustrations and historical photographs on each page make the journey a visual delight as well.

Indra Čekstere’s book is a labour of love, made possible through a  private-public partnership project between Latvia’s largest commercial bakery, ‘Hanzas Maiznice’, and the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. It is a welcome addition to the growing number of high quality books in English about Latvia, its history and traditions.

One story you won’t find in the book concerns the special role of Latvian bread in international relations. Back in 1994, Hillary Clinton raved about the taste of Latvian rye while visiting Riga with President Bill Clinton. After she returned to Washington, a huge loaf of Latvian rye was delivered to the White House. According to her chief of staff, it fed the First Lady, President and several staff members for several days during White House meetings. Hillary received another gift loaf in 2002 after she was elected U.S. Senator. A copy of ‘Our Daily Bread’, personally signed by the author, is already on its way to the New York Senator.

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