Ah, mother Russia, whatever your faults, your bread is a glory.
By anyone's standard, Russian bread excels: It is plentiful, varied and cheap (some officials say too cheap).
And it is fresh.
This last quality allows Russia, a land of notoriously poor quality goods, to rival France, that gastronomic sophisticate, in the excellence of its daily loaf.
Freshness is essential to bread, but since it may be in short supply from the big-time bread merchants where you live, let us review the subject:
Bread freshness is an aroma of well-being indicating that lively processes of harvest and hearth have been brought to orderly perfection by human genius. It calls up in modern humans dim recollections of the most distant past, when the fragance of it first wafted through the clan cave, bearing the novel message that just maybe, these was reason to hope for better things.
This is why, even today, fresh bread is more important than you think.
Walk into any of Russia' many bread stores and you will see an implacable quest for freshness underway as suspicious buyers try to locate the softest, warmest, youngest specimens from among the hundreds sliding wrapperless toward them on inclined trays. A thoughtful officialdom aids them, providing blunt-bowled spoons so shoppers can properly test the crust for springiness. it may be the only officially-sanctioned continuous search for truth detectable in the Soviet Union.
As many as 300 different kinds of bread, rolls and buns are theoretically available each day from the state khleb (bread) stores.
There is black bread so strong that Russians eat it for sobriety after a glass of vodka. There is white bread sweet as cake, rolls lighter than Parker House and sturdy, nourishing circle loaves of white that eclipse Pepperidge Farm.
Beguiling the eye in almost any khleb store are: rigiski rye, square brown loaf with poppy sees; orlovski , brown loaf with pungent earthly aroma; stolichni batoni or "Paris bread" as it is now familiarly known; and bulochki domoshni diminutive loaves specially for home use.
They are joined by round Ukrainian breads; Lavash , the chewy, flat round Georgian bread whose freshness wanes in a day; vatruski , light rolls the size of a Danish, with apple jelly or sweet curds in the center, brioshi delicate enough to pop in the palate, and moskovskaya , the citywide standard in white and brown versions, in various sizes and shapes from loaf to roll.
As in the U.S., there also are many kinds of diet bread, loaves with little or no sugar or salt, or with special ingredients. The standard diet loaf is simply called doktorski and costs 10 kopeks (15 cents) for 200 grams.
For political, psychological and ideological reasons, the price of bread has been kept unchanged by the state-run economy for several decades. A loaf weighing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), may cost between 18 and 25 kopeks, or 27 to 37 cents. Rolls cost a little more, about 15 cents for 200 grams.
Soviet propaganda has made much of Western inflation that has sent bread prices endlessly upward, and keeping the cost of bread and other basic staples low here pays many dividends in an economy beset with consumer good shortages of all kinds.
"Russians love bread and treat it as something close to sacred," remarked Valery N. Gorelikoff, the director of Moscow bread factory No. 5, during an interview and tour of his bakery.
Little wonder. Under czars and communists alike, Russia has had a fearful history of famines, the result of war, disastrous crops, mismanagement and, at times under Stalin, deliberate policy. Severe shortages leading to starvation have not been reliably reported since the years just after World War II, and now firmly seem something of the unhappy past. Indeed, the Kremlin in recent years has spent billions of dollars of scarce hard currency buying American grain to ensure adequate supplies for both citizens and stock in years of poor harvest.
When the U.S.S.R. embarked upon massive industrialization, the party planners concluded that such a time-consuming labor as home baking of bread would take women needlessly away from the labor force. So bread-making became part of the state's function.
The moscow boasts 15 large factories with daily capacities of more than 300 tons apiece, and 10 smaller factories with maximums of 50 to 80 tons daily. The wrapless, loaves, are tucked in wooden racks and transported around town in blue trucks that, next to official limousines and empty dump trucks, seem to be ever-present.
If all the factories worked to capacity, there would be enough bread and rolls to provide about 1 1/2 pounds daily for each of the capital's estimated 7 million residents. But Moscos factory No. 5 normally produces only half its daily capacity, or 150 tons. Gorelikoff says this is because Moscovites eat less bread every year and their diet is more varied than ever before.
As for freshness, Gorelikoff himself favors tightly-bound Western-style wrappers for bread, because the bread would stay fresh longer and ease his delivery problems. But poorly designed wrapping machines and a shortage of wrapping materials rules this out.Only one type of bread is packed in waxed paper now, a kind of toast and sandwich white loaf. The subject of wrapped bread is controversial, he says.
"Some people think wrapped bread loses its taste and won't buy it." The same is true of preservatives, he says, with traditional-minded housewives believing that preservatives detract from freshness.
But, Gorelikoff says, wrapped, preservative-laden bread seems sure to be widespread in Moscow in another decade or so because it will mean lower production costs.
The very fact that bread is so cheap had led to abuses, according to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. In an article last year, a psychologist, P. Yelchaninov, wrote that many Moscovites wastefully feed bread to the pigeons or even throw it out without finding any use for it at all. Of 102 housewives he interviewed, he wrote, only 11 said they consume all the bread they buy.
"The country is no different from the city," he added. And many peasant families buy bread only to feed it to their pigs and chickens. "The reasons is that today's collective farm woman can buy with an hour's wages an amount of bread that would have taken her 5 to 8 hours to bake in the old days, before there were bakeries in the village."
He added, "The price of bread has remained fixed for decades, while average earnings have tripled in recent years. Bread is sold below cost, for only one-seventh to one-fourth the price charged in capitalist countries." He suggested that this was not necessarily a cause for rejoicing. The authorities ought to think seriously about reducing the weight of loaves, he declared.
In other words, one man's bread is another's problem. That has been true of society, in one form or another, ever since the first loaf emerged from the heat. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman from "The Bread Book" by Carolyn Meyer, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.; Picture, no caption