June 09, 2019

This Takes the Cake!


This Takes the Cake!
Black bread coated with flour. stocksnap.io

Almost exactly a year ago, a meme about bakeries materialized on the RuNet. Graphic designer Artemy Lebedev published a logo for a Soviet-inspired bulochnaya, or establishment selling already-baked goods, in Belarus. The logo split the word "булочная" into two halves with a picture of a bread loaf. Not the most conventional design choice, that’s for sure.

"Bulochnaya" logo (bread loaf splitting word "Bulochnaya" in half)
The logo. / Artemy Lebedev

We can appreciate the meme for its inherent weirdness. But to fully understand its context, we have to understand the history of the Soviet bulochnaya. And to fully understand that, we need to learn a little bit about how bread is baked in Russia and Eastern Europe. So, buckle up – or rather, strap on your oven mitts, this is going to be a tasty ride!

***

“Без соли, без хлеба — половина обеда,” goes an old Russian saying. Indeed, is a meal really Russian if it doesn’t come with a hearty side of черный хлеб? And even though bread is a longstanding Russian staple, the means of making it have evolved with the times.

The most traditional way to bake Russian bread is in a traditional Russian stove. These require a lot of preparation, and since they don’t have standardized temperature settings like modern stoves, it can take between 40 minutes and three and a half hours to bake a loaf of black bread. Nevertheless, the unique heating process that takes place in Russian stoves is said to give bread a special consistency and flavor. And besides, there’s a charm to baking bread using an appliance that was historically the lynchpin of the Russian peasant household.

Black bread outside Russian stove
Black bread baked in a Russian stove. / pechnoy.guru

Of course, bread doesn’t have to be baked at home. Under Peter the Great, bakeries selling Western-style pastries swept into Russia. As the imperial era rolled on, baking dynasties began springing up all across Russia. Especially of note were the Filippovs, who ran one of imperial Russia’s biggest chain bakeries. At the height of their success, the Filippovs operated over 15 locations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tula, Saratov, and Rostov. They sold everything from kalachi (a padlock-shaped white wheat bread) and pastries to caramels, candies, and even coffee. Too bad they predated the invention of wifi by a century. Otherwise, they would have truly been the Starbucks of imperial Russia.

Filippov Bakery's original location on Tverskaya Street
The Filippov Bakery’s original location on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. / Wikimedia Commons

The Filippovs’ company went bankrupt in 1905. It was unfortunate for them, but perhaps in the long run it was a blessing in disguise. Twelve years later, the Bolsheviks started nationalizing bakeries, eventually also taking possession of the Filippovs’ remaining bakeries. They separated the production and sale of bread, building industrialized “bread factories” (хлебозаводы) and organizing collectives of bakers to produce the country’s bread. Gone were the small shops and big bakery chains. Here to stay were state-run bulochnye — the same bulochnye that Lebedev’s client sought to emulate.

Bulochnye were where Soviet citizens went to buy the bread made by collectives and bread factories. The bread sold at bulochnye was of mediocre quality, and especially in remote areas, the bulochnye often sold out.1 It seems ironic that Lebedev’s client advertised its goods as “tasty, aromatic, and high-quality as those in Soviet cafeterias.” But, as we’ve seen for other foods, Soviet nostalgia goes a long way in marketing foodstuffs.

Khlebozavod (Bread Factory) No. 9 in Moscow
Bread Factory No. 9 in Moscow. It produced bread from 1934 to 2015 and is now being converted to residential apartments. / Wikimedia Commons

The 1990s saw the rise of mini-bakeries, or мини-пекарни — small baking establishments that distinguished themselves from Soviet-era bread factories. For a while, mini-bakeries struggled to make headway against Soviet-era bread factories and bulochnye. However, if you visit a Russian city today, most of the bakeries you’ll see are mini-bakeries. Some have even lifted their Soviet-era competitors’ aesthetics, if only for branding purposes. In St. Petersburg, one prominent bakery chain names each location “Булочная” plus a number, hearkening to Soviet naming conventions. But the pastries they sell range from traditional sushki to exotic plum meringues, and their ubiquity is a sure sign that their output is far from mediocre.

Bulochnaya No. 74 in St. Petersburg
Булочная № 74, part of the F. Volchek chain of bakeries. / Tiffany Zhu

Who would have known that a concept as simple as a bakery has such a complicated history? One way or another, the next time you break bread with someone, do it at a Russian bakery — or at least order a hearty side of Russian bread.

Modern bakery interior
Interior of a location of Leningradskie Bulochnye, a bakery chain. / Leningradskie Bulochnye

1 For more on bread baking in the USSR, see E. D. Tverdiukova, “Хлебопечение в СССР в 1960-е – 1980-е гг.”, in Voprosy istorii, 2018, volume 12, p. 42-54.

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