01 March 2019 Posted By : Administrator

The greatest thing since sliced bread is ... old-fashioned bread: Inside one baker's mission to transform Canada's loaves

Dara Gallinger paces the big open kitchen at her bakery in Toronto that doubles as an urban mill, grinding all the grain for its bread. She grabs a handful of fresh-milled flour — a favourite demonstration of hers — and squeezes it in her fist. It clumps together like soil.

“That’s like clay,” she said, poking at the ball of flour in her palm. “That’s because it’s alive.”

Gallinger, a former marketer for Sobeys Inc., and the handful of people in her orbit — a billionaire toymaker, a Swedish baker and a rookie miller — all like to talk about flour in the same stark manner: It is living or it is dead.

“It’s a plant,” she said. That flour in Canada is in the wrong category is perhaps her most radical proposition. Her rationale: Shelf-stable, highly refined white flour is bad flour. Bad flour makes bad bread, and bad bread is responsible for all the recent suspicion heaped on bread.

“I would like to see this (flour) in the produce section of grocery stores,” she said, “in the fridge, with a shelf life, as a plant.”

But it’s clear within 10 minutes of talking with Gallinger — who has worked seven days a week since opening Brodflour (brod means bread in several European languages) — that her ambitions are far grander than bringing European baking virtues to Toronto.

Her shop may be Scandinavian in style, selling simple fare such as toast and jam and loaves of bread, but her ultimate ambition is to “reposition” the bread category in Canada — a $3.5-billion industry.

The wall of bread at Brodflour in Toronto’s Liberty Village. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

“I don’t want to compare it to Starbucks — at all,” she said, but finding no better analogy, she continued. “Before Starbucks, you couldn’t find anybody who would ever think about spending more than a buck for a coffee. But then all of a sudden, Starbucks comes in and people are spending four or five bucks for these crazy drinks.

Put another way, coffee went from being a commodity to a premium product. Gallinger wants to do the same for flour.

Ronnen Harary, co-founder and co-CEO of the Spin Master toy and entertainment company. Nathan Denette / Canadian Press

Until 2017, Gallinger was a director of product marketing strategy at Sobeys, Canada’s second-biggest grocery chain. She met Ronnen Harary, co-founder and co-CEO of the Spin Master Ltd. toy empire (responsible for franchises such as PAW Patrol and Air Hogs) at a Halloween party in 2016.

Harary had been looking for a business partner for an idea he’d been cooking up for a decade: a shop that would do something different with coffee and bread. He had the money to fund it, but not the time.

“I just thought, when people pick up coffee in the morning, why wouldn’t they pick up a loaf of bread?” he said. “Entrepreneurs always want to try different things, but I’m restrained by the company I run.”

Six months after they met, Harary asked Gallinger to take charge of this loosely defined coffee-bread project over dinner. He calls it a “reverse venture capitalist” model.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “I can allocate the capital and share an idea and someone can bring the idea to life.”

The offer was good timing for Gallinger, too, since she had recently become frustrated by big bread manufacturers, one of which had approached her Sobeys, wanting to give a facelift to the bread aisle to combat waning sales.

“It bugged me, a lot,” she said. “What about actually making the product better?”

Gallinger left Sobeys and, at Harary’s suggestion, went on a seven-week tour of bakeries around Europe and the California coast.

In Sweden, she met Robin Edberg, the proprietor of two bakeries, both called Cum Pane, in Gothenburg. Edberg was adamant that as a baker, his most important relationship was with the miller who produced his flour. Hearing that, Gallinger doubled down on the concept of an urban mill that would source heritage grains from Canadian farms.

Brodflour miller Jesse Saldana pours seed to be ground into the bakery’s stone mill. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

Edberg eventually signed on as a consultant for Brodflour, visiting Toronto five times — usually two weeks at a time — to write bread recipes and train its bakers.

“I would love to have my own mill,” he said.  “It was one of my dreams.”

The biggest challenge Gallinger faced early on was making lighter flour that would still meet Canadian consumer expectations. She bought two stone mills — one slightly larger than the other, for a total of US$43,000 — from one of the few, if not the only, North American manufacturers of such equipment, based in Vermont. But she ended up on having only space for one of the mills; the smaller mill is in storage.

“I’ve never built a bakery before,” she said. “You just — you make mistakes … We’ll just store this and put it in our next space. It’s not a big deal.”

The stone mill crushes the grain between two granite millstones (big, slightly curved disks). In this state, the flour includes all three parts of the grain: the dark, fibrous coating called bran; the nutrient-rich germ; and the white endosperm.

Jesse Saldana checks the grain flowing into the stone mill. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

Whole grain flour makes bread that is denser and flatter. To make it lighter and fluffier, much of the bran and germ needs to be sifted out in a process called bolting.

Stone milling is much more brutish than modern industrial mills, crushing the grain to the point that it’s harder to sift and separate. Most modern industrial mills, however, use a series of steel cylinders, or rollers, that are more surgical in separating the grain.

To determine how much bran and germ is in a batch of flour, millers calculate an extraction rate. In very basic terms, refined white flour is only the endosperm, which means around 70-per-cent extraction rate, since endosperm makes up roughly 70 per cent of grain.

Put another way, if a mill grinds 100 kilograms of grain, the flour should weigh 70 kilograms since the bran and germ (the remaining 30 kilograms) have been removed.

Gallinger asked her mill manufacturer in Vermont to build an extension that would bolt the flour, allowing for some of the bran and germ to remain.

Brodflour head baker Will Ballantyre-Rice with fresh bread. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

Gallinger also enlisted a cook, Jesse Saldana, to become her miller. She sent him to Vermont to train with the man who manufactured the stone mill, and to Manitoba to meet with two of Brodflour’s grain farmers as well as its seed cleaner.

The bakery gets its grains — red fife, rye, spelt and hard red spring wheat — from three farmers, in Peterbourgh, Ont., and Brandon and Stonewall, Man.

“This guy’s spelt is amazing,” Saldana said, reaching into a 20-kilogram bag from Merrylynd Organics in Peterborough. “It’s really plump.”

He tests each batch of grain for the kind of stats bakers pay attention to, such as protein content.

The problem with using organic, heritage grains is economics. They are expensive grains to produce since they don’t offer the same yields and consistency as modern crops do. And stone-milled flour also doesn’t offer the same consistency as the industrially produced version. That is part of the reason Brodflour’s bread and flour are more expensive: ranging from $7 to $12 for a loaf and $10 to $14 for a kilogram of flour.

Jesse Saldana walks past the mill as it grinds. He frequently monitors the mill, sometimes pressing his hands and face against the steel to make sure it isn’t overheating. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

Back in the bakery, Saldana jolts the sack of grain with his knee, hoists it onto his shoulder, and climbs a short ladder to the mouth of the mill, his head hovering just below the ceiling. He pours the grain in and scurries back down the ladder to monitor the two main variables under his control: the speed of the grain entering the mill and the pressure placed on the grain by the two stone disks.

As the flour spits out of the mill, he checks on the sifter.

“It smells like a farm,” he says of the flour. It does smell vaguely farmish, but more like sweet corn husks.

The sifter feeds into three bins: flour; a more even mixture of endosperm, bran and germ call the “middling,” which Brodflour uses mostly in its leaven and as bench flour; and, finally, the bran. (Saldana gives most of the bran back to the farmers he works with for animal feed.)

Saldana grabs a handful of the bran. If the mill is operating right, very little of the white endosperm should get through the sifter to the bran bin. He holds a fistful up to the light, stroking the granules, checking for white.

“I’m pretty happy with that,” he said. “Very minimal specs.”

Jesse Saldana checks the flour during the milling process. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

The resulting spelt flour is good for pasta, Saldana said. At Brodflour, it’ll go into making croissants (which the bakery is experimenting with) and one of the sourdough bread varieties, scored by hand and jagged, amber in spots and dark like molasses in others.

Steven Kaplan, a professor emeritus at Cornell University, is one of the world’s preeminent bread scholars. He is a delightfully forthright man, who describes typical North American sliced white bread as “tasteless, insipid, repugnant bread.”

He noted the concept of a bakery milling its own flour is a “banality” in France. But it also contravenes an old French proverb that, loosely translated, states, “One cannot be at the oven and at the mill.”

Essentially, it means you can’t be in two places at once, since the mill and the bakery were two distinct places in France for centuries, enforced by regulations designed to deter corner cutting in the industry.

Now the proverb is frequently disobeyed, Kaplan said, particularly in France, where a resurgence of “peasant bakers” has emerged in the past decade. They grow their own flour, mill it and bake with it. It’s part of what he calls an “inversion” in the past quarter century.

Some of these peasant bakers share Brodflour’s belief that fresh flour is more nutritious and tastes better, but that idea is still “a complex and not yet settled” question that is being studied, Kaplan said.

The virtue of fresh flour is the latest topic in a centuries-old debate. In the 17th century, Kaplan said, flour wasn’t deemed ready for baking until it had been allowed to “breathe” for six weeks to lose its humidity.

He warned that the trend toward traditional methods — and the vilification of industrial production — can be clouded by nostalgia for a version of the past out of step with reality. The idea that the industrial revolution is solely responsible for depriving people of good, country bread is far too simple a narrative for Kaplan.

“It pisses me off,” he said.

Brodflour head baker Will Ballantyre-Rice scores bread before it bakes. Peter J Thompson / Financial Post

Instead, he said, it was a far more gradual and complex process, pushed by culture, not industry. If the industrial revolution caused insipid, repugnant bread, it did so more by modestly increasing the prosperity of families, who then diversified their diets, depending less and less on bread as “the ration” of survival.

“White bread has very bad press,” Kaplan said. “But white bread was the dream of every poor person in Europe and in America until at least the middle of the 20th century.”

White bread, he pointed out, was even used to resemble the body of Christ in Catholic mass.

But for the past quarter century or so, he said, tastes have been shifting back the other way, with waves of glitches and foodborne illness pushing people away from mass production and toward simpler, more traditional producers — such as France’s peasant bakers and, now, Gallinger and Brodflour.

Sitting in her office above the bakery, Gallinger said she has hopes to expand, open more stores and build out a wholesale business. First, though, this one has to work, and that means explaining how this new, but old bread is made, where it comes from and why it costs $7 to $12.

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