Muhu island has a special vibe compared to the rest of Estonia. This is where the traditional flowery patterns flourish, embedded in handmade carpets and clothing. The villages have preserved their way of life for centuries. Nature remained untouched. Hence, it’s not a surprise that one of the most beloved Estonian rye bread, Muhu Leib, was created here.
“We wanted to make the Coca-Cola of rye bread and we succeeded by chance,” Martin Sepping, the founder of Muhu Leib bakery, told Invest Estonia. In his view, most bakers take it easy when it comes to rye flour. Since it’s healthy anyway, they pour the dough into a form and bake it in the oven with little thought to it. Estonians will buy rye bread anyway, why change anything? Sepping and his team decided to raise the bar. “We found the right leaven and experimented with various tastes and, to our surprise, got it right!” he recalled.
Muhu Leib is now, ten years later, one of the most sought after goods on the island. During the summer months, they purposefully keep a low profile in their island bakery since the demand is greater than the supply. Tourists still track them down and may leave empty-handed if they’re too slow. “At least then we don’t have to feel guilty, because we didn’t make any promises,” Sepping said with a smile. On the mainland, they work with supermarkets to bake right at the stores. It’s a win-win for everyone. The bread-lovers get their loaves straight from the oven and the bakery doesn’t have to worry about transportation. It’s important for Sepping that the bread should be fresh, natural. They don’t use yeast and only use raw sugar.
Muhu Leib has around five to six per cent of the market share in Estonia. It hasn’t changed much over the years. “We are not at all interested in increasing efficiency,” Sepping said. Traditions are at the heart of their company, using stone mill flour and trying to sell the bread fresh and warm straight from the oven whenever possible. “We wouldn’t even know about modern bread-making techniques,” he admitted.
This sums up how conservative Estonians become when it comes to their bread. Nothing trumps a fresh natural loaf.
A typical mass-produced bread usually arrives frozen at the supermarket and is warmed up there. It’s common to use artificial colours and yeast. For those who value healthy food, would either have to bake their own bread or go to local bakeries.
Only good-hearted bakers are welcome
On the other side of Estonia, somewhere in the middle of pine trees and sheep, near the city of Võru, four bakers come together to bake squared black bread when everyone else is still asleep. They can make around a thousand of them per night, all by hand, and all natural, without additives.
Customers often buy them in bulk and freeze them at home. It makes a great gift too!
Karin Juhkam, the founder of Paadi Pagar, believes there is might hidden in every loaf. After 16 years in the business, she reveals the secret: only good-hearted bakers are allowed behind ovens. The doors are open and anyone can come and see every step of the bread-making.
Warm black bread is central to Estonian culture. It’s even echoed in the language. “Jätku leiba!” is an old way of saying bon appetit, but literally means “always have bread”. Because you’ll always have an appetite, but may not always have bread, as a local British-Estonian entrepreneur Adam Rang has explained.
Rye has been cultivated for more than a thousand years in Estonia. During the Middle Ages, Estonia was known across Europe as a major rye exporter. Estonian historian Lea Kõiv has written that by the end of the 17th century the Baltic Sea provinces were even sometimes called Sweden’s breadbasket. Rye and barley were mostly exported to Western Europe and Sweden.
Nowadays the bread section in the shops is almost overwhelming with rows of various assortments. Bakeries often experiment with new ideas, tossing seeds, fruit and even vegetables in the buns. Estonian Food Industry Association even awards the best bakery product every year.
“Any fool can make white bread”
Last year, Eesti Pagar‘s Dark rye crust bread ‘Kodukandi’ won. A fully locally-owned company Eesti Pagar only uses Estonian flour ground in local mills. Eesti Pagar is one of the biggest exporters in the Estonian food industry, shipping its products to Japan, South Korea, the United States and Bolivia, amongst many other countries. Half of their customers buy the products abroad. “Our bread is something new and exciting for foreigners,” Ragnar Kõiv, the head of Eesti Pagar said. It’s fully made using rye flour, with many added seeds. It’s tasty, but still healthy too.
But even Eesti Pagar is focusing more on the uniqueness of the bread rather than mass-production.
For Kõiv, it’s about honouring the ancestors’ legacy. He recalled an old saying: “Any fool can make white bread, but only bakers make black bread.”
Instead of reaching out for shiny-packaged globally known brands, why not do a favour to your body and soul and take a journey to a small Estonian bakery? You might be able to catch some of that might every Estonian secretly knows about.
And should this story or a trip to Estonia inspire you to start your business here, we are happy to help you. Just send us a request for 1:1 e-Consulting and get started.