The Heritage Bread: Rural Food Tradition, Heritage-making and Community-building on Kihnu Island, Estonia

Theme: Heritage Preservation and Rural Communities

by Ms. Siyun Wu
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Beijing, China and lives in Leiden, Netherlands
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
PhD candidate in the Music Heritage and Citizenship in Estonia, Leiden University



Through the lens of traditional bread, this case study looks ethnographically into the heritage preservation and production in the Estonian small island Kihnu. Dark rye bread called Leib has been made and consumed as a part of people’s everyday life in Kihnu. Among many social processes at local and global levels, including modernization and the global dissemination of the heritage concept, Kihnu Leib becomes ‘traditional’ and is constructed as ‘Kihnu heritage’ and ‘Estonian heritage’ under the encounters of Kihnu community and other Estonians as well as people from other countries and food cultural backgrounds. In the case of Kihnu, the preservation of traditional bread and the process of heritage-making go hand in hand with the strong local spirit and joint effort of the local community — driven strongly and also further contributing to the solidarity of the Kihnu community.

The Bread Crisis

“I am so sorry, but we are out of bread,” said Mrs Mare Mätas, the head of Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation, an organization found for preservation and development of the cultural heritage of the island and run completely by local Kihnu people.

Kihnu is a small island with 16.4 km² of land and approximately 400 year-around residents. But even so, as in a European country where people can conveniently get food from supply chains that are well distributed countrywide and operate days and nights, it sounds unreal that one could come across a food shortage, particularly of bread, one of the most staple food in Estonia.

But it was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List under the title “Kihnu Cultural Space”. It was the last day of the Kihnu Heritage Day and Knitting Workshop in 2018. More than 20 participants, including some Estonian decedents living abroad and me, a Chinese student, were well packed at the Metsamaa cultural farm[1] and ready to be picked up to the harbor. Mare, for the first time throughout the event, didn’t show up as scheduled. People started to murmur to each other’s ears. Just when the usually quiet Estonians started to probe loudly, Mare ran into the room. She started to apologize immediately, completely forgetting about sorting her traditional Kihnu red dress from the pouring rain and rushing run in the muddy ground, which she carefully wore almost every day. With great regret, she informed people that the ferry was broken from a storm last night so they would have to wait here and that the team could not serve food on time without the supply they expected the ferry to bring along from the mainland. Leaving the full room of visitors not knowing what to do, Mare rushed away back into the wind and the rain.

About half an hour later, people started to ease their ways with this “typical Estonian situation” from the unpredictable weather and to wait more relaxing, chatting and sharing warm tea and coffee and leftover snacks with each other. Mare came again, with a relieving and bright smile on her red cheeks this time. Then something completely out of everybody’s expectations happened again. There was food! And it was a whole collection of what can be equivalent to a normal everyday breakfast, fresh vegetable, cheese, butter, egg, ham, sorts of bread spread and salad. Although hungry like all the others and couldn’t think of anything else but grabbing the food, I couldn’t help but notice, except for some package ham and cheese, everything was freshly made, egg salad and tuna salad, and among all, the bread! Laid evenly on the plate, there was the Kihnu Leib, in brown color and with a black burnt edge.

So, Why Bread?

and what is so special about this plate of Kihnu leib that I start this paper with the ‘bread crisis’ on the island?

While what we eat, how we eat, and how we feel about it could be the mirror of the self (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993), these questions also reflect how we perceive ourselves in relation to the others and to the society (Mintz, 1986). Food practice and food consumption could serve as experiences of culture and different cultural boundaries in behind (Kwang 2015).

Kihnu Leib by local entrepreneur Pärnamäe talu. Source: ©author at Metsamaa Cafe, 02-07-2019.

Perhaps, Estonians would find it couldn’t be more natural to have Leib on their tables, but for me, although have been living in the Netherlands for a few years and getting familiar with bread, Leib was one of the very first things I found different when I came to Estonia. The black skin Leib made with rye flour is dense in texture and has a strong and distinguishing earthy taste. Leib, with the dark color, the soil-like appearance, the slightly burnt smell, the rich texture and flavor of it, is a marker for me as an anthropologist originally from China to notice ‘the other’. Learning to eat Leib is indeed essential for my survival to live without a rice cooker in Estonia. But more than food as merely a substantial need, it’s from Leib, this ‘starter’ that I start to taste, to experience and to learn about Estonian people, their lives, their heritage, their cultural and social worlds.

Moreover, after living with some Estonians, I start to find out that, although bread is simple and common, Estonians don’t love their Leib. Like the affection and attachment Chinese people have towards different types of rice, rice bowls and dishes to eat rice with, I can explore many varieties of Leib even just in common supermarket. I also see Estonians eating Leib in many different ways, with salt butter or fresh berries jam, with fish or meat, going with soup or in meals, and even baking it in slices as beer snack or smashing it to make dessert (the “leivasupp”, usually mixing Leib with whipped sour cream into a creamy soup-like form as can be read from its name “bread-soup”, is a simple yet very delicious example). Symbolic meanings could be attached to certain food, drinks and eating habits (Goody, 1982). Leib is getting to be seen as a national bread, a dietary staple and cultural identifier for Estonians (Nilson, 2019). Then, Learning how to appreciate the taste of Leib is a crucial process to understand fuller and deeper on what it means to eat, to live and to be “Estonian”. And more concretely, as I find out later when I am back to Kihnu, it is a process also important for understanding of why the Kihnu Leib is special, why it can be recognized by Kihnu people themselves and other Estonians as Estonian heritage. The loaf of bread is connected to a bigger picture of how Kihnu people are preserving and developing their cultural heritage and community life as a whole.

Intro. the Kihnu Leib

Many people from the mainland of Estonia have told me, Kihnu people and life here are different. Yes, even for Estonians. Although getting to open up to visitors nowadays and being able to get mostly the food products shipped from the mainland, different sorts of bread included, Kihnu was strictly restricted to access for people from outside during the Soviet time and it wasn’t as easy to transport to as today until four years ago, having a big ferry that allows vehicles on board. Life here, has a picturesque landscape, timeless peace, tranquil neighborhood, skillful, kind and trustworthy people that many people enjoy and dream for. But, there are also a lot of hardships, particularly during the long, cold, dark winter. The bread crisis is an epitome. Unpredictable circumstances, extreme weather, limitations of living materials for even the most substantial bread, can happen anytime. Kihnu people, however, develop their wisdom, skills and strong identity, and keep their lifestyle from facing the relatively isolated and hard island life. Generations of Kihnu people have learned and kept their skills to manage life on their own hands, finding, growing and making their own food, building and mending their own houses and cottages and so on.

Don’t know how to make bread myself, I started to search around the island. Before the summer holiday time started and the tourist season arrived on the island, I was amazed at how little bread I could find in the two grocery shops. I realize later, it’s partly because people still prefer baking their own bread at home. And, very Estonianly, the most typical bread they like here is Leib. Some families still carry on the practice from cultivating their own plot, sowing and growing the rye, harvesting and drying the grain, grinding it into flour and finally women, like in the old times, bake warm and tasty bread. Although all the homemade dark rye bread are generally being called “Kihnu Leib” because each family bake their own ones, sometimes from electronic oven and sometimes from the older wood ovens, Leib can be different from each family to another and even each different time from the same family.

Fieldland in Kihnu. Source: ©author, 02-07-2019
Kihnu leib by local entrepreneur Rooslaiu talu. Souce: ©Rooslaiu talu Kihnu leib, sai ja suitsukala, Retrieved at 29-07-2019

After being informed from many locals, I get to know that there are two basic kinds of rye Leib (cf. Mätas, 2009; Ruubel, 2014) Kihnu people make, Rugibleib for daily consumption and a more exquisite version Rugipüülileib with better rye flour, sugar and cumin or caraway traditionally made for the festival and special occasions. The baking of Rugibleib takes two days while Rugipüülileib needs three days. A long-time is given for the flour setting (sometimes 10-12 hours) and the bread is often left in the oven overnight. This gives, Kihnu Leib, its very dark smoked skin and the special light sweet and sour taste. Leib can stay fresh for about one week. Sometimes, like how Rooslaiu talu make their rewarded Kihnu Leib, people add some potatoes to help keep the bread fresh for even longer. Sometimes, people also add small pieces of fatty pork or Baltic herrings, which local fishermen can catch around the island almost the whole year-round.

It’s true that Kihnu Leib is not very appealing at the first look. It’s simple and heavy like a badly burned brick block. It’s even not that easy to slice! The surface of the bread loaf is usually quite hard like a turtle shell piece. The purely-rye-made inside is much thicker and tighter than the commercial rye bread, which often incorporates wheat flour into the mixture. Yet, once you slice out a fresh piece of Kihnu leib and hold it in hand, the hard edge will become a crispy crust, the softness and warmth remain inside the loaf will gently spill around, and the fragrance of the bread hinting a smell of the grain and the wood will breath out subtly. Local people like enjoying the bread with slightly salted Baltic herring on top, or with soups or alongside the main dishes. But simplicity makes the best, the dense and tenacious texture of Kihnu Leib might go best in the way Favorited by most locals, just a dab of salted butter spread on a warm, soft and rich slice. When the butter and the bread melt together in my bite, it tastes like a piece of cloud in the blue sky, with the breeze from the sea and the golden grain from the black soil of Kihnu, becoming the duvet on my tongue as a whole. It’s the light and enriching taste going in one, like the letting-free and the down-to-earth Kihnu islanders.

Kihnu Leib with salted butter and Baltic herring. Source: ©author at Metsamaa Cafe, 02-07-2019.

Heritage Preservation and Kihnu Community

As Laurajane Smith states in her acclaimed book Uses of Heritage (2006, pp. 13-14), “There is, really, no such thing as heritage.” In the quickly expanding field of critical heritage studies, scholars are sharing an understanding that heritage is not merely a passive conservation or preservation of the past, but a cultural construct, a social process which reflects chains of connectivity, sets of values, dynamic power relations, and expectations of the future in the present (Lowenthal, 1985; Smith, 2006; Harrison, 2013; Harvey, 2014).

With more time spending on the island, I increasingly saw that heritage in Kihnu, or even Kihnu as a whole being a heritage space, is not heritage by itself. It becomes heritage. Kihnu Leib is a very good example. There is no such thing as ‘traditional’ Kihnu Leib nor ‘Estonian heritage’ bread. Kihnu people have been making their dark bread from generations to generations, with materials they farm and skills they develop from the limited access to sufficient supply of commercial bread. Making Leib in such ways has continuously been a part of people’s everyday life in Kihnu. Kihnu Leib has been becoming ‘traditional’ and becoming ‘Estonian heritage’ as a meta-cultural production (Kirshenblatt‐Gimblett, 2004). On the island, Kihnu Leib is usually just one kind of normal bread that Kihnu people make and have on the table. It becomes “traditional Estonian dark bread” when mainland Estonians from the cities who share the memory of homemade bread but mainly eat commercial Leib from supermarket now see and smell the bread and recognize it as “something really good”, as “something we used to had and rarely any more today”; when international visitors come to see Kihnu Cultural Space, me included, and ask what kind of bread this is; when it is produced for sale and goes into the package with a name tag of “Traditional Kihnu Leib”. Under the island’s encounters with people from the mainland and abroad, with the multi-layers global heritage regime, and with different cultures, values and interests, Kihnu, including Kihnu Leib as well as many other aspects on the island, is constructed as heritage. And, this social process of heritage-making (Graham, Ashworth & Tunbridge, 2000) is still actively carrying on, with not only the interests from various visitors and from the more dominant ‘top-down’ institutional approach on heritage preservation, but very preciously, with the strong spirits and hard efforts of local community as well.

Allow me to go back to the bread crisis and the plate of Kihnu Leib that triggered me to come back and to locate my fieldwork on this island. This memory still stands vividly in my mind. When I looked closer on the plate and got the bread on my hand, I noticed and felt that these were different bread. Some slices were browner, some with more burnt, some were still warm and softer, some were with little sticky pieces. I was told later, Mare called and asked different local households if they had some spare bread or if they had some time to make something. It was a joint effort of the community that there were bread and breakfast that day. Through the lens of Kihnu bread, I see a close connection between the making and keeping of Kihnu heritage and the strong sense of community spirit of Kihnu people. There are two main households making Kihnu bread regularly for sale on the island, but besides from their own family shops, people can also find and buy their bread in the local museum, restaurant and even shops that are selling commercial bread from the mainland. Despite the slightly different ways of making the bread, people recognize each other’s properly made bread as the traditional Kihnu Leib. And when there’re guests wanting more Kihnu Leib or time of shortage similar to the bread crisis comes, people will help, including those don’t make traditional Leib so regularly for sale. In a sense, the making and preservation of Kihnu Leib as local heritage is driven the strong community spirit while at the same time, furthermore, strengthen the solidarity of the local community. Tasting more carefully of the Kihnu Leib, there are the strength and the sweetness from the Kihnu grain, the traditional skills of baking bread. And perhaps, more exquisitely, one can taste something perhaps more special: Kihnu people’s strong wishes and joint efforts of keeping their ‘heritage’ and culture alive.

[1] Metsamaa, meaning forest land, also known as “the Yellow House” among the locals, is an avenue for many different cultural events on the island. It also functions as a part of Kihnu museum with exhibitions of local artworks, farming and household tools, clothes and handicraft. It also provides accommodations and, with a cafe newly opened in the summer of 2019, catering and food services.


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