About time, is really what this post needs to be called, since rye bread is last week’s bread project. Just goes to show what a doughnut fanatic I am, once I get started talking on the subject it’s hard to stop. Case in point, the previous sentence. So where was I now? Oh yes, rye.
Rye is a wheat-like plant (a cousin both to wheat barley), which of course makes it a grass. Indeed it looks very similar, with seeds (really fruits) on the end of a long stalk. Yet it’s different enough from wheat that it was once considered a weed, which probably explains why it wasn’t cultivated until fairly late in the development of agriculture (about 5,000 years ago compared to roughly 10,000 in the case of wheat).
It is in fact rye’s weed-like characteristics that make it an exceptional crop. As anyone who’s ever tried to control weeds in a lawn knows, weeds tend to be pretty good at the survival game, and rye is just that sort of rough-and-tumble type of customer. Unlike other members of the wheat family, it grows extremely well in acid soils and is adaptable to wet, cold conditions. So much so that these days it’s cultivated well up into the arctic circle, and on mountains to elevations of about 14,000 feet. Quite a neat trick for a weed from the Middle East!
Though it was cultivated late, it didn’t take long for rye to spread from southwestern Asia to Europe, where it became a favorite food of some other wrong-side-of-the-tracks types, the Germanic tribes, who took it with them as they ransacked their way around the continent. In this way, rye was spread to Britain (via the Anglo-Saxons) and to France (via the Franks). And while the Brits discarded much of their rye in favor wheat over the centuries, rye remained the dominant grain in the French countryside right up until the 20th century. Other big rye lovers are the Germans, the Poles, the Scandinavians and of course the Russians.