Baking Our Daily Bread
To bake really good bread is a true calling.
For those who are called, the results can be spectacular. Racks of wholesome, golden loaves, perfectly crisp baguettes still soft in the middle, gooey sticky pastries, bagels and tempting cookies can be their own reward, but to hear the deeply contented comments of customers, clutching a still-warm loaf to their chest, is better than finding gold.
There is something about a really great loaf of bread that screams “soul food” This kitchen staple can be so much more than a vehicle for butter and jam. It can be a foodie revelation, a meal in itself. Bread that is made by hand, with love, is as close to the industrial, factory variety as a giraffe is to a horse. Both have four legs.
At bustling Pipolinka Bakery in Wakefield, Québec, it’s all about the heart and the hand. If you were to write a job description — Wanted: Baker needed for anti-social hours and daily risk of failure — “there are not a lot of people who would choose this as a career,” says Phil Bernard wryly, chief baker at Pipolinka and co-owner with his wife Kalina.
But thankfully, there are a few. “That’s why I do what I do,” says Bernard, “I could get machines, but it’s all about the heart. Baking by hand maintains the heart, the heart maintains the skill needed for the job. Every time you use a machine, you loose the heart of it.” At Pipolinka everything is made by hand from scratch, even the puff pastry and praline paste that fills pain-au-chocolat pastries.
Bernard and his team turn out 20 different types of bread on rotation weekly. From simple brown whole wheat and daily crisp baguettes — one regular French and the other sourdough — to nutty brown loaves packed with seeds, to bagels, specialty wheat-free sourdough loaves and a long loaf called a filone, packed with herbs and a sprinkling of black sea salt, it is no surprise that this bakery has won Best in the Hills for several years running.
On any given day before dawn, assistant baker Emma Montford will be getting things moving behind the scenes at Pipolinka. She will have up to 10 different things on the go, rising gently on covered racks, waiting for their moment in the intense heat of a stone oven. Bernard will be making bagels, briefly boiling each one in a honey water mixture, using honey from local bee farm, Berg en Dal, before turning his attention to a Viking loaf. The Viking is a dark rye sourdough, packed with seeds, beer and beetroot juice. The dough is more like a cake — floppy, pink and very moist — but once baked it turns a dark, nutty brown and is perfect served with smoked salmon.
Bernard and Montford are clearly born bakers. Bernard, who used to work at Croissant Express, which became The Wild Oat on Bank Street in Ottawa, says baking found him. But in all honesty, he had an interest in organic food and the basics of food science from a young age. Montford, who had only baked three loaves of bread before she started at Pipolinka, has a grace and calm in the chaos of a hot kitchen that would undoubtedly make her great in an emergency. She has a confident hand and a gentle approach, turning out piles of golden croissants and perfect, mouth-watering baguettes. Both work around one another as if choreographed for a ballet. Both listen to the bread, literally and figuratively.
Bending low over a row of perfect baguettes on the wooden work surface, Montford motions for me to listen. Slowly, then more intensely, I hear them crackling. “That’s the baguettes singing to you,” she says. “Sometimes I play classical music to them.”
For Bernard, listening to the bread is about reading the dough. Because his bakery is neither temperature, nor humidity controlled, the way the dough rises will differ daily. “The true master here is the dough,” he explains. “I’m just here to read the bread and not to rush things.” That, he says, is the secret to a good sourdough, “an adaptive baker!”
Down on Wellington Street in Ottawa, the girls at Bread by Us are not in any hurry either. Owner Jessica Carpinone and her assistant baker Pam Wildraut work efficiently and quietly. There’s a feeling of calm in the bright, airy kitchen. One cuts the dough for croissants and pastries, while the other kneads whole wheat brown dough before setting it aside in baskets to rise for a second time. Earl Grey tea, apple-granola and white-chocolate-espresso scones emerge, golden and fragrant from the stone oven.
“You have to be very composed to be a good baker. It feels meditative and it’s really the closest thing I’ve felt to a sense of spirituality,” says Carpinone. “Calm is important in the kitchen because it’s counterproductive to panic when you’ve got seven or eight doughs going at once.” This is what Bernard, at Pipolinka, calls “parallel processing.” It’s the ability to keep track of the progress of many changing things at once. It’s more than multi-tasking. It’s being totally in tune and completely aware of all the things you are doing.
As giant bowls of focaccia dough bubble and ferment in one corner, Carpinone prepares savoury Danish pastries stuffed generously with Seed to Sausage pastrami and topped with a slice of cheese. She moves swiftly along to Panettone, a three-day process, which the girls will be taking with them to a craft fair on the weekend. “We really want to get our products outside the bakery for people to try,” explains Carpinone. However, if they expand their clientele much more, meeting demand will become the biggest issue.
“It’s been an uphill battle to explain to people why we can’t just make more,” says Carpinone, “but they’re beginning to grasp that the shelves will be empty at the end of the day. They’re also understanding that everything won’t be out at the beginning of the day.”
Most bread-making is a two-day process. The girls at Bread by Us use minimal yeast, preferring instead to let time do the work to make the bread rise. “It allows us to ferment things for longer, which leads to better flavour, texture and shelf life,” explains Carpinone, “and it allows us to work throughout the day.”
The most basic of foodstuffs, bread builds community. Perhaps it’s the fact that at its most simple, it’s made from the building blocks of food — flour, water and salt. And at its most simple it can provide good, healthy sustenance. To that end, Bread by Us features a blackboard for suspended bread. The idea behind this is that a customer might buy an extra loaf and leave it suspended for someone else who might not be able to afford one. In the two years since the shop opened, “we’ve had about 1,300 transactions and it’s allowed us to welcome people in here who might not otherwise come,” says Carpinone.
For heart, for soul, for happiness, give us our daily (artisanal) bread. Amen.