How sourdough starters and freshly milled flour are transforming the simple loaf

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Not so long ago, things weren’t looking so good for bread. It was all no-carb this and gluten-free that. Bread baskets disappeared from restaurants. Lettuce leaves replaced hamburger buns. Suddenly, a beloved staple of the human diet was no longer welcome at the dinner table.

But now bread is back.

Not just any bread, though. Not the white, spongy, pre-sliced stuff in a plastic bag. We’re talking real bread. Bread with a dense crust and chewy crumb. Bread you want to tear apart and devour as you walk out the bakery door.

“People are coming back to bread,” says Shira McDermott, the co-founder of the Vancouver-based dry goods company Flourist. “And more than just embracing sourdough baking, they’re coming back to the idea of freshly milled flour.”

How we got here

Bread isn’t complicated, or at least it shouldn’t be.

“It’s very simple ingredients: water, flour, salt,” says Vadim Mugerman, the owner of Bad Dog Bread in North Vancouver. “It’s so basic and it’s a necessity. With a loaf of bread, you can feed a family.”

Bread has sustained humankind for least 9,000 years and probably much longer. Indeed, the evolution of civilization is measured in bread. Whenever any group of nomadic peoples settled down to begin farming and cook over fire, they’d bake bread, often in communal ovens where they could also swap the news of the day.

Then the 20th century came along, with its disruptive world wars, social cataclysms and a relentless demand for convenience that included soft, cheap, shelf-stable bread for the masses.

Manufacturers removed wheat’s germ and bran, the bits that go rancid easily, but also contain its wholesome fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Some of those nutrients were later reintroduced chemically for an “enriched,” if texture-free, loaf. Commercial yeasts replaced natural ones. Sugar was added. Other chemicals bleached, preserved and protected bread from pests and mould.

No wonder bread started to make people feel unwell.

“There’s up to 12 different agents that can be added to flour without being put on the label,” McDermott points out. “It’s taken something that is a nutritious whole food that people have relied on since the beginning of civilization and turned it into something that our bodies don’t recognize.”

So she decided to do something about it.

Great grains

Five years ago, McDermott and her business partner Janna Bishop started Grain, which was recently rebranded as Flourist, to sell sustainable, traceable Canadian dry goods such as chickpeas, wheatberries and lentils. Mostly though, they wanted to sell freshly milled flour.

For the last two years, they’ve been milling heritage grains and selling them online and at pop-ups where they also offer bread and other baked goods. Now, finally, they’re about to open their own bricks-and-mortar Flourist location this summer.

“This place is something we’ve envisioned since we started our company,” McDermott says, gesturing around what is still an empty space on Commercial Street but will soon be a Ste. Marie-designed hot spot. “We’re calling it a mill and bakery, but it is really that third place of a coffee shop.”

In addition to the coffee bar, bakery and retail section, there will be an Austrian stone mill behind glass, so customers can watch it transform whole grains into wholesome flour.

“We don’t add anything to our grain. We put the grain in the mill, the grain comes out,” McDermott says.

“Flour is a perishable product and best consumed as soon as possible after milling, just like coffee. It’s a whole different ballpark in terms of flavour and how it makes you feel. It’s really quite amazing. You can eat half a loaf of our bread and you’ll never feel rotten afterwards.”

In fact, she says, she often hears from customers who’ve had wheat sensitivities in the past. “People write to us every day and say they can eat bread again and they can eat cookies again, when they’ve avoided them for years,” McDermott says. “When you can improve someone’s everyday life and give them the gift of bread … that’s what makes us feel so good.”

Natural starters

Around the same time Flourist opens its doors, Mugerman will have his stone mill from Vermont up and running in North Vancouver. (Although he started making his own flour when he opened Bad Dog Bakery two years ago, his tiny mill couldn’t keep up with demand so he’s been using Red Fife flour from True Grains in Cowichan Bay in the meantime.)

Originally from Moscow, Mugerman was living in Squamish, skiing, climbing and working for a pest control company, when he fell in love with bread. “I started baking a little bit at a time … and then I quit my job and went to Europe,” he recalls. “I brought my skis, slept in my car and I worked at bakeries at four in the morning.”

He found a baking mentor in a small village above Albertville and says, “When I left here, I thought I would be a baker. I didn’t want to be a miller. But the fact that she had her flour milled freshly, it was a game changer. The difference between regular flour and freshly milled flour is huge.” He smiles ruefully. “I knew I would be milling the grain.”

Upon returning to B.C., Mugerman found space in North Vancouver’s Café Orto, where he runs his bakery in the mornings, before service. Now he’s moving into a space behind the restaurant where he will have a retail area as well as space to bake rustic country loaves, buttery cinnamon rolls and what might be the city’s best baguettes.

“We know we have good baguettes because we work with French women and we have a lot of French people who come for the baguettes,” he says with a laugh.

What makes the baguettes so good, in addition to the quality flour, is the two-day process that includes overnight fermentation using a sourdough starter.

“Working with sourdough is very different from prepared yeast. It’s part science and it’s part art,” Mugerman says. “You don’t tell the dough when it’s ready to be shaped. The dough will tell you and that is the beauty of it.”.

Home-baked goodness

Where just a few years ago it was a challenge to find a good artisanal loaf anywhere in the Lower Mainland, today bread-forward bakeries are popping up everywhere from Fieldstone in South Surrey to Beyond Bread in Kitsilano, Nelson the Seagull in Gastown, Fife in East Vancouver and Lift Bakery in North Vancouver.

More than that, though, a baking revolution has taken over our home kitchens.

“What bakers are doing now is embracing this dynamic product that really requires you to get in touch with it,” says McDermott, noting that Flourist offers advice and recipes on its website and Facebook bakers’ club. “And baking is such a great activity.”

Perhaps we’ve been inspired by televised baking shows. Perhaps we crave the elemental comfort of making something with our hands. Or perhaps it’s simply because making bread forces us to slow down and catch our breath. As Mugerman says, “There’s one ingredient that’s never listed on the package, and that’s time. With bread, there’s no shortcuts.”

Mix all of that together and, McDermott says, “You end up with this incredibly delicious living food. There’s an intangible magic to it — and some of that gets transferred into what you eat.”