Our Daily Bread

BreadDoughA few years ago I bought a bag of flour called Saskatchewan at the COOP store in the Collio, way up in the northeast corner of Italy. (I tried to get the cashier to say Saskatchewan, curious how that word would sound when spoken with an Italian accent. It was a no go. All she would venture was farina while looking at me quite crossly.) On the back of the bag was a sentence saying the wheat was exceptional and from the plains of America.

A few years earlier I had spent a couple of afternoons at Salone del Gusto handing out samples of Red Fife wheat bread, Canada’s contribution to Slow Food’s Presidia Foundation for Biodiversity. The bread was selling briskly — a half loaf for 5 euro and full for 10. Visitors, mostly food lovers from the city of Turin where the event is held, lingered to say how good it was. They loved the texture and they trusted Canadian wheat; this was like the bread they ate when they were kids. (Red Fife was the first commercial wheat in Canada. Antique varieties of hard spring wheat such as Marquis and Park, what we now call heritage grains, are becoming commercially viable again thanks to growers like Gold Forests Grains‘ John Schneider and Marc Loiselle in Saskatchewan.)

I saw the Expo 67 movie on TV recently — a panorama of wheat fields, lighthouses, mountains and cities. It was quaint and sweet in a 1967 Centennial sort of way — displaying a Canada defined by landscape, especially by waving swaths of golden grains.

Wheat and Canada, gluten and gut pain. It seems almost un-Canadian to demonize wheat. Yet, how did the product of those glowing fields, once heralded as the feed basket of the world, become the latest food demon?

Wheat belly, wheat brain. There is an entire Internet full of voices saying they lost 10 kilo, don’t have acne, have better sex, sleep through the night etc etc, all from giving up wheat. Gluten-free products have gone from fringe to big business. I am not talking about those with wheat and gluten sensitivities where eating can cause real pain. I am certainly not talking about those with celiac disease, for whom gluten is poison, a terrible condition with serious side effects. If the one good thing about wheat-aversion is that there are more and better gluten-free products to choose from and celiacs don’t have to feel as though they have two heads when ordering in a restaurant, it’s all for the good.

I am talking about good old run-of-the-mill food-bashing where something once considered healthy is perhaps getting put through the ringer for no good reason. It was eggs, now wheat?

What if the source of the problem for those with sensitivities wasn’t gluten at all but rather the methods and the type of flours used? There is anecdotal and scientific evidence emerging that suggests it’s not the gluten, folks, but fast methods and modern high-protein wheat strains that may be the culprit. What if heritage grains and long slow fermentations are the key to being able to eat your bread and feel good, too?

Bakers think that may be so.

”Perhaps it’s the process of making bread quickly and using additives which causes some people problems,” says Gabor Dobos, the Bon Ton Bakery’s head baker. He thinks that the slow fermentation creates less pressure on digestion. “You can see it, feel it, taste the subtleties in the dough, the longer shelf life. Naturally leavened breads can last up to a week.”

We’re chatting over some carrot pumpkin seed breads that have just come out of the oven. The bread, made with John Schneider’s Park wheat, takes several days to make. Bon Ton makes 17 doughs in all, some with the starter that dates back to 1956 when Eugene Edelmann opened the west-end bakery; some a mix of both commercial yeast and their various whole wheat and rye starters, and some with commercial yeast.

I write this while enjoying a slice of Bon Ton Bakery’s heritage wheat sunflower seed loaf. It’s about four days old, and takes some muscle to serrate through the hardening crust. The interior is moist and flavourful, fresh-tasting, wheaty, a little sour. It’s contemplative, you cannot scarf down a piece of this bread in 10 seconds flat — it’s as far from Wonderbread as is Sinead O’Connor from Miley Cyrus. I thought I preferred pain au levain* (breads made with a natural starter and a slow fermentation process) without the accoutrement of nuts or seeds or herbs, but I’m charmed by the thyme aromas and chewy pop of the seeds. Yesterday I had a slice topped with Sylvan Star’s Grizzly Gouda, placed under the broiler for a minute or two to make an open-faced grilled cheese. It would also make really good croutons for a sagey squash soup.

That’s the thing about pain au levain. They last a long time, and when they do become too hard to eat, you make croutons. You want to use up every last bit. The flavour seems to improve for the first two days; perhaps like good wine they need some air. They have holes and are irregular in size and they don’t even always taste the same every time. Which is why so few bakeries specialize in them.

Heritage wheat breads at the Bon Ton Bakery. Gerry Stemler photos.

A few years ago Bon Ton’s owner Hilton Dinner started thinking differently about bread. “We want to slow down in an accelerating world. Our goal is to have more long fermentations and reduce the commercial yeast in our breads. We’re reducing the number of ingredients to flour, water, salt, natural starter or yeast, that’s it. We buy several organic flours from Gold Forest Grains, but, we have to take into account our customers’ preferences. If you have been buying a bread for several years we can’t change it overnight.”

“Someone called today and said the holes in the bagels were too big,” he says. “Bread is not an exact science. A commercial factory can make a million loaves all exactly the same. That’s not what we do.

“More people are looking for alternatives; they are asking more questions about the breads.

“All our breads have less sodium and any breads made with oil are made with non-gmo cold-pressed canola oil. The sourdoughs have a reduced glycemic index because of the natural enzymes. A growing percentage of people are conscious of what they are eating, whether it be gluten or organic or non-gmo or just wanting to know where their food comes from.”

“If you make bread in a few hours it has no taste, there’s no time for the flavours to develop,” says Gabor Dobos, Bon Ton’s European-trained head baker. “That’s why commercial bread here has so much sugar and salt. The law in Germany is no more than 1.7 per cent sugar, here the norm is 3-5 per cent sugar.”

Bon Ton is a full-service bakery offering cakes, cookies, and pastry along with bread.

“We survive because people buy their daily bread — 60 per cent of our business is bread, 40 per cent pastry. Pastry is profitable but people only have one birthday a year. We used 21,000 pounds of butter last year. We use only butter, when the bakery opened, shortening was the thing.”

We watch Nam Jiang and two helpers make cheese Danish by hand. There are plenty of big machines; ovens, Hobarts mixers and rollers, but most of the work is done by hand on long wooden tables.

“We’ll make 800 loaves tonight,” says Gabor, “all by hand, 25 dozen Danish, 15 dozen croissant. Our croissant has a bit of levain in it. It’s Eugene’s recipe, he was Hungarian, too.”

Kenny Chartrand shapes baguettes at Boulangerie Bonjour.

Boulangerie Bonjour’s Yvan Chartrand, a baker with over two decades experience in Japan, bought the Treestone Bakery from Nancy Rubiliak five years ago. (Nancy was the first of the new wave of non-European trained bakers in town making pain au levain.)

“People say to me all the time, ‘I can eat your bread but not regular bread.’ My experience tells me it’s because the levain process changes the gluten. The grains we use make a difference, too. We mill all our grains, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat and Marquis wheat for all our breads, except for the baguette; that flour we buy from a mill in southern Alberta. Baking is an art and a science,” says Yvan.

“Technique, experience, the grains are all important. The starter is the heart of the bakery — it’s a living thing. Breads made from it are not going to be the same every time, it depends on the temperature, the weather, the grains. It’s always different, every time we have a new shipment of grain, we adjust a bit. This summer our starter was not happy — it was too hot. Even after 20 years, sometimes I scratch my head,” says Yvan.

“Baguette is not an old-time bread, and I prefer a neutral, not sour baguette. We want a crusty loaf, with that fresh bread smell. The baguette has a long fermentation, takes two days — the dough rises slowly overnight in the cool temperature; then we cut it and let it rise again. When you hand form a baguette you deflate several times. Our process is very gentle although the baguette does come out a little flatter.”

Bonjour Boulangerie is a family business with Yvan’s wife Ritsuko greeting the customers and Kenneth learning how to make bread from his father. Yvan’s favourite loaf right now is the whole grain made from Marquis, the direct descendant of Red Fife, grown near Strathmore. “With the same dough we also do a seven grain which we call complet. The rye is from Vegreville. This rye is so beautiful, a nice and even greenish colour.”

Why does using a starter and old strains of wheat appear to make a difference in tolerance of gluten?

“Gluten is moving from the area of complete mystery to something we can document and explain,” says Dr. Michael Gänzle, professor and Canada Research Chair, University of Alberta’s Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science (ALES) department.

Modern wheat has more protein which you would think is a good thing — unless you are sensitive to wheat proteins, which Dr. Gänzle’s research suggests may be an issue for about 10 per cent of the population.

“One suspect in some of the gluten intolerance is that it is actually a wheat protein intolerance. This is not firmly established, but it may be that slow fermentations change the proteins. My area of research includes trying to come up with gluten free-breads that act and taste like bread with gluten, with good mouth feel, the texture and the volume, by using lactic acid to improve bread quality. Breads leavened with lactic acid have more time to create more diverse microorganisms, and more flavour.”

Owen Petersen, the affable co-owner/baker of the Prairie Mill Bakery, finds making bread incredibly satisfying. “Maybe I have a short attention span — you start at the beginning of the day and at the end you have fresh bread. You have dough and then you eat.”

Most of Prairie Mills breads are made with bakers or brewers yeast, which take about four hours.

“We make about a dozen breads such as honey whole wheat, our nine-grain whole wheat for sandwiches and cinnamon raisin bread, and sell about half of our production to grocery stores.”

They make a few breads with their starter named Julie. Each takes three days. (Yes, Julie gets fed every day. Owen had to take her home once when the bakery in Calgary shut down for repairs.)

“We make a basic dough called the Yukon sourdough which is also the base dough for the multigrain loaf (a four grain mixture) and the Mediterranean sourdough, savoury, with black olives, available on Saturdays only.

“We don’t have big walk-in fridges where we can proof overnight. I would need a very different setup; we are maxed out with the three sourdoughs. We grind all of our wheat from Maple Creek Sasakatchewan on a stone mill giving us the coarse grind distinct to Prairie Mill.”

Why does Prairie Mill use honey in their breads?

“Alberta makes lots of honey, honey breads last longer, it has no other preservatives, adds flavour, gives the yeast lots of food.

“The best thing about baking is the combination of working with your hands and being in a social environment. We get into some great conversations. Customers in bakeries are happy people.”

For Linda Kearney of Dauphine Bakery, it’s all about the wheat and the starter. Linda and her partner Paul Bumanis started to make bread three years ago when they decided to expand their farmers market dessert business and start a full time bakery and café.

“I wanted to make bread for the café, as good bread is a necessity, and bread is a daily thing for most people. We produce incredibly good grain here in Alberta and we wanted to provide bread made with local ingredients. With desserts it’s harder to do, chocolate and lemon aren’t from here.

“We buy most of our flours from John Schneider, organic spelt, ryes, buckwheat, whole wheat, soft white. Our bread gets better every year, we get more experienced, but it is subject to the seasons. We don’t have a commercial proofer, we proof in the air, a problem when we cannot get the bakery warm enough, like in early December.

“All our doughs are pain au levain, though the brioche and the challah have a small amount of yeast. The way we make bread reflects Edmonton and making bread this way helps maintain a food culture. People should eat more good bread — you get what you pay for.

“I feel good about our bread. If you want to buy local, bread is the place to start.”

Recipes: Our daily bread… a couple of days later

Good bread tastes great even if it’s not right out of the oven, and every food culture cuisine has thrifty and tasty ways to finish off a stale loaf. Make fried bread crumbs to add umami to simple dishes, dumplings, rustic Italian soups, or a decadent bread pudding.

Mary Bailey is the editor of The Tomato.

*Pain au Levain: Bread can be leavened in two ways, one using cultivated yeast (Saccharomyces) often called brewers or bakers yeast; or a biological form of leavening using Lactobacillus culture in a partnership with yeasts, which is known as the starter. Breads leavened with a starter are known as pain au levain or sourdough. The lactic acid produced by lactobacilli create a slightly sour taste, along with more complex aromas, flavours and textures. Because of their pH level and the presence of antibacterial agents, starter cultures are stable, not affected by spoilage yeasts and bacteria, allowing sourdough products to keep fresh longer. Each starter has its own microbiology, which creates unique characteristics, one of the reasons bakers tend to keep a starter going for years.