Raw Foodist's Father Bakes Latvian-Style Rye Bread in Brooklyn

John Melngailis' Latvian-style rye.
John Melngailis' Latvian-style rye.
Jenny Miller

John Melngailis, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland (and the father of Sarma Melngailis of Pure Food & Wine), missed the dense, dark, sourdough rye bread he ate growing up in Latvia.

When he discovered he could order loaves online directly from the Latvian capital of Riga, he reconnected with the bread of his childhood. Four years ago, he began importing loaves and selling them to his local Whole Foods, yet when grain costs spiked and the dollar slumped, this became cost-prohibitive. Melngailis knew he needed to find a baker who could undertake the arduous, 36-hour baking process Stateside. A search led him to Brooklyn, where he located a small baker (whose identity Melngailis would rather not reveal) willing to learn the authentic method, which involves leavening the dough in wooden troughs and baking the loaves in a wood-fired oven.

This past fall, a number of New York Fairway and Whole Foods stores began carrying Melngailis's Black Rooster bread, selling the dark, oblong loaves for $5.99 each (they may also be purchased on the company website).

Melngailis isn't just someone who craves a carb fix. "I sort of consider myself a food evangelist," he says, emphasizing that the partially digested fiber in the bread makes it more filling and healthy than typical loaves made from ultra-refined carbohydrates. "I feel like I'm doing the right thing. When we first came to this country [in the 1950s], the only bread was Wonder Bread. Now you're buying the most humble Latvian peasant food as a gourmet product."


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