Our Daily Bread

Part two of our series from Lydia on life in the Ukraine is here - and today we are looking for some break to wash that vodka down with.

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I was going to write about Ukrainian food but I didn’t get any further than bread when I realised that it deserves a blog of its own. This is perhaps because I was once traumatised as a child when I told my mother I didn’t like brown bread and got a resounding clip across the ear!

Since ancient times bread has held a special position in the cuisine of the Ukrainian people. Archaeological evidence shows that wheat, barley and millet were grown in Ukraine 3,000 years ago. Rye was introduced 2,000 years ago. The exceptional fertility of Ukraine’s soil and its climate contributed to Ukraine becoming the “breadbasket of Europe”.

Ukrainians are so obsessed with bread that it infiltrates every tradition and ritual. No significant family event can take place without it. Bread is used to bring divine blessings to the commencement of every farm task, the marriage ceremony, the birth of a child, and the move to a new home. Bread is also used at funerals and wakes to part with the dead. As a sign of hospitality, guests of honour at celebrations and public functions are greeted with a ceremonial offering of bread and salt. In the past even the preparation of the dough and the baking of the bread had their own ritual practices and were performed as mysterious, almost magical, acts. Today these rituals have lost their meaning but have been preserved in folk tradition.

There are a variety of ceremonial breads: braided bread (kalach) at burials and wakes; Easter bread (paska); bread with filling (knysh); intricately decorated wedding bread (korovai); sweet bread (babka); egg bread (bulka). Many kinds of pastries are popular: turnovers, doughnuts, strudel, poppy-seed rolls, sweet buns, tortes, layered coffee cakes, honey cake, rolls, and cookies.

My favourite was always paska – the Easter bread – possibly because of the blessing rituals which surround it. Paska, along with other goodies such as coloured eggs (pysanky), butter, salt, cheese and sausage, are packed into a picnic basket covered in beautifully embroidered cloths (vyshyvky) and brought to Saturday midnight mass to be blessed. As midnight mass tends to go for a substantial portion of the night, after the blessing, families take their blessed food (svyachene) home in time for breakfast. There are variations on that theme: in eastern Ukraine, they go home, place the svyachene on the table and the oldest member of the family opens the cloths in which the food is wrapped, slices pieces from each item and distributes them to members of the family. In the Hutsul region of western Ukraine, the people walk around the house three times, go to the stable, extend Easter greetings to the cattle, touch them with the svyachene, scatter pieces of Easter bread and salt in the manger and send holiday greetings to the bees.

That’s all good in theory and I’m sure it worked well for farmers.  But as children of Australian migrants, we eventually made our parents adapt to modernity by going back to bed at 5am after being up all night, sleeping till midday and then eating it all for lunch