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Famine Bread

June Pelo

In the middle ages a variety of breads were baked in Scandinavia. In Finland people ate a fermented and leavened rye bread, baked in an oven. In Sweden they made a bread known as flat bread or thin bread, made from corn and oats and baked on an iron slab over an open fire.

There was another kind of bread which was known as famine bread. The population was largely of farmers who were exposed to the forces of nature - utterly dependent on the weather. Each crop failure constituted a deadly threat. In the middle ages, and for centuries after, any part of the country where the harvest failed simply starved, abandoned by all others. It was impossible to shift grain from one province to another - roads were almost non-existent and effective means of transport lacking. At such times the peasant farmer turned to the forest for his bread.

As far back into the past as research can probe, bark bread formed part of our ancestor's diet, and for long periods at a time it was the daily bread on their tables. The 1200's were among the most catastrophic in medieval history. A severe winter and icy temperatures joined forces with famine. In the harsh northern climate the winters were the testing time of people.

In the first years of the 1440's Finland was smitten by repeated crop failures. The Finn's main source of bread - rye - was ruined by drought or frost. Dry weather in spring and summer reduced the sowing, and early frosts in the autumn hindered the harvest work. Many farms were deserted as a result of those hard years.

During the years 1596-98 our forefathers were plagued by what is the longest famine in historical times. In 1596 the people who lived wholly on the fruits of the soil had been overwhelmed by a general crop failure. Spring had come early that year. Sowing could take place in favorable weather and everything pointed to a good harvest. But then came a tremendous delayed spring flood, drenching the fields and submerging them so long that the seed was ruined. Spring and summer brought a lasting wetness. Day after day the heavy rain fell. Clothes rotted on the farmers' bodies as they worked in the wet weather. No dry hay could be brought in. It rotted and turned moldy in the barns. And the cattle, affected by the ruined fodder, sickened and died by the hundreds. The meat could not even be used to feed dogs and cats.

As autumn came and supplies ran out, no new grain could be harvested. The bins and pork barrels were empty. People looked for every possible substitute for their normal diet. They ate bark, buds, leaves, husks, nettles, hay, straw and roots. They ground up bones for flour. Their bodies became weak. People became too limp to do heavy work. They collapsed as they worked.

During that winter and the following spring, innumerable victims starved to death. Unburied corpses could be found everywhere, indoors and outdoors, in barns and sheds, on roads and paths. Bodies lying out in the open were eaten by stray dogs. Corpses were found with fistfuls of hay and tufts of grass in their mouths.

People stole everything edible they could find. There are written records in Finland of hungry little children who chewed up their own fingers. A disease known as "blodsot" (blood sickness), caused by malnutrition, brought many people to the grave.

Two more years of crop failure followed. All parts of the country were affected. Bark bread became the daily bread. For bark bread, the membrane immediately under the rough bark was used. This inside layer was scaled off with an iron scraper. All members of the family went out and scraped the trees. Then began the process of preparing the bark.

First it was hung up to dry in the open air; then beaten or crushed; then ground into flour. The bark membrane is very thin, and many trees had to give up their skins before there was enough to make dough. Time and patience were needed. The bark was collected in summer, before the end of July. Thereafter the trees might dry up and wither away. The pine tree was usually chosen - and was the most beautiful.

Bark bread was more frequently eaten in Finland than in any other Nordic country. Villages were more isolated, and help was out of the question. Even during the 20th century wars, when food was rationed, the Finns mingled bark in their bread. The bread tasted sour to the tongue and had no flavor.

Our ancestors also used other ingredients for their famine bread. They chopped up husks and straw and used mosses of all kinds. During the many famine years, bark bread has saved numerous people from starving to death.

© June Pelo

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