The Forest of Memory, Rye Bread from Belarus

Nina in her forestThis is indirectly a story about rye bread from Belarus. When I was in my twenties, which was in the 1970s, I bought a beautiful book on bread called Le Pain. I bought it in a bookshop in Paris. My French is poor but I could get something from the text. There was a mention of oak branches being added to the dough when rye bread was made in Belarus. Seemed very odd. In the early 1990s it occurred to me that the author, Bernard Dupaigne might very well still be alive. This was before the internet but the book had mentioned that he worked at the Museé de l’Homme so I called the museum and, indeed, he still worked there. I met him on my next visit asked about his source for the oak in dough reference. He said that he could send me to her.

His source was Nina. I have no idea where the notes are to my meeting with her so I cannot tell you her last name. When I went to visit her in the late 1990s she lived in a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. I had clear instructions to her house — the house number as I recall was 22 on a cul-de-sac. What could be easier? But no house number 22 was visible which was strange because this was a neighborhood of modest homes that fully revealed themselves to the street. Where 22 ought to have been there was a lot overgrown with trees, a dead car, and no house number. After walking back and forth and consulting a neighbor it turned out that there was a house, and that was its number. When I got to the house it seemed abandoned. Only a tray of chitted potatoes indicated that someone might actually live there. I called out and of course a wonderfully energetic wildly eccentric and deeply interesting old woman opened the door.

In 1952, exiles in France, Nina and her husband bought a lot in a new part of Paris, surely cheap, where they built a house, and planted a forest around it to remind them of their home in Belarus. Fifty years later, this forest of memory had become a real forest, with mature trees, and an understory of shrubs and small plants. It was an entire ecosystem. She harvested sap from the birches to make birch wine. She picked herbs for medicines. I’ve spent time in Lithuania near the border with Belarus so I recognized the bathtub set to collect water from the roof as a convenience for people who use wells.

Nina had been brought to Paris as a slave by the Nazis but couldn’t go home after the Soviet Union occupied her country. As exiles both she and her husband were involved in anti-Soviet protests in support of freedom for her country. Until the fall of the Soviet Union she was trapped in Paris and the closest could get home was through this magical landscape that she and her husband had created.

I met with Nina to talk about traditional rye bread and  did talk about bread, but our talk began with a walk in her forest and is the that proved more important than the bread. In this excerpt from our walk, and I apologize for the erratic sound quality of the recording, I was new to field recording and didn’t have the right equipment for a walk, Nina speaks about her nostalgia for home. She speaks of the night, which is the time when she feels closest to her country because at night the same stars shine above Paris and Belarus. When her family was still living, inspired by a poem she had read, she sent them letters in which she arranged with them to look up at the stars at the same moment, she in her forest of memory, and they in their forest of tears.

Here is thelink to the recording of Nina talking about arranging to look up at the night sky at the same time as her mother. As for the rye bread, I no longer recall what she said, and while somewhere I must have the recording of the interview, my French is poor and I was asking her about a detail from a long time ago. What I learned from her was the reminder that foods and places go together and whatever the rye bread was like in Belarus in the 1930s we cannot make that bread, even if we could.

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