Wandering through what feels like a maze of rooms, I make my way the basement of the Knox United Church on instruction from the building’s caretaker. Upon reaching the community kitchen, I’m greeted by a small flurry of Filipino women labouring over large trays of lumpia. They roll pats of ground pork into crepe paper casings, then deposit them into neat rows. Jess had some car trouble and she and Cora are running just a few minutes behind, so I wait next to a stack of chairs and tables in the kind of low-ceilinged banquet hall you find in the basement of just about every old church.
Jess and Cora arrive, just a little out of breath, and we exchange greetings. They lead me through to a back corner in the kitchen and begin pulling loaves from a paper bag sharpied with an Enneagram and the words “This is the life we've chosen.” Jess tells me it’s something they say to each other a lot, especially when things go wrong - say, when a car won’t start for example.
Cora brings over the sourdough starter and a bag of flour, commenting that it seems to be clumping more than usual today. As Jess works fresh flour into the starter, they discuss possible reasons for and solutions to this change.
Since November of 2016, Jess and Cora have been selling their sourdough through bread shares, also known as Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA’s for short. On Friday mornings, customers can pick up their pre-ordered, pre-paid loaves from locations like The Strong Badger Coffee House or Pollock’s Hardware. Jess tells me, “For sixth months, they weren’t getting anything out of it besides free bread. They were super excited to just be a host.” Cora explains that all orders are pre-paid, “So we have money to buy ingredients up front and in bulk. There’s no waste because we know exactly how much bread we’re making every week.”
Before the bread share, Cora had been selling bread at the Woleseley Market all summer. She says, “It was getting to be fall, and my regular customers wanted to know how they could continue to get the bread in the winter. I’d quit my job to sell bread, and was wondering how I was going to make money in the winter. So the bread share happened.”
But Eadha’s main source of income has become the sourdough workshops they started in February. “At the beginning, we were hosting them at different community centres, but now we’re doing it at Knox, where we bake,” Jess tells me. “Between 20 and 25 people are showing up every time, and they’re learning how to make sourdough bread. It’s a three-day process we’ve condensed into three hours.”
Jess and Cora finish feeding the starter, return it and the flour to their spots in the kitchen, and we continue our conversation back in the banquet hall.
FULL: It’s very clear to me how community-based your work is. Instead of opening a bakery, you’ve got the bread shares, the markets, the classes. Tell me more about those choices.
Jess Hill: We also offer trouble shooting advice to anyone who’s taken one of our workshops. We get emails and phone calls, “My bread didn’t rise,” or “What do I do with my extra pre-ferment?”
Cora Wiens: And pictures of their successful loaves with happy faces.
JH: It’s mostly happy.
CW: Some of our customers have signed up for workshops not really with the intention of baking bread for themselves, but to get an idea of the process. We’re at markets and communicate through email with a lot of our customers. We have relationships with many of them. People come to the workshops because they want to support us.
FULL: How long have you been baking bread? Is it something that was passed down to you through family?
CW: My grandma and mom made yeasted bread. I learned about sourdough through a friend when I was on a trip, and then picked it up aspects of sourdough from different people. I’ve worked at bakeries as well.
When I was 19, I tried starting a little CSA, because my family has a vegetable farm and growing up my parents were always doing CSAs. So I was 19, I came home from this trip, enthusiastic about sourdough bread, and I started a bread CSA with my family’s veggie CSA. It was successful, but I kind of chickened out. Ten years later, let’s try it again.
JH: My mom made bread in a bread maker, but it was never something I was really that interested in until I was in university. I was diagnosed with what is called Primary Obsessional OCD. It’s a pure “O” OCD. People think of OCD being cleanliness-focused or straight-lines-focused. For me, it was all happening in my head. You hear comedians talking about it. They talk about constantly having the fear that they’re a rapist or a murderer. It’s this unwanted thought that you’re bad. And you just go over it, and over it, and over it.
It’s kind of darkly funny now, but at the time, I was in deep. It was terrifying. One day I was just like, okay, I’ve got to do something, so I started baking bread. Baking bread, I was able to remove myself from those thoughts for a short while. It would come back, but I was able to use it as a distraction technique, and it got me through.
There’s this moment of uncertainty when you’re putting bread in the oven, when you’re letting it rise. You have to be fully engaged throughout the process because there are all these unknown variables that you can’t control. You have be vigilant about checking in with it. With sourdough, that process of having always to check in - that mindfulness - is tripled, because there are so many more factors.
FULL: That almost seems meditative to me, but with a focus. Sometimes trying to meditate, your brain just goes, “Okay, now I’m going to think about all the shit you don’t want to think about right now.”
JH: Exactly, that would have been the worse possible thing for me to do. I had to do something where all my senses were engaged. With bread, you have to be so aware.
FULL: Interesting. This is making me wonder if there are ways in which you’ve taken what you’ve learned about working with bread and applied those ideas to how you lead your lives.
CW: For sure. In any process, the more aware you are of what’s happening in the moment, the more fully engaged you’ll be with the people you’re with or the work you’re doing. And the more you’re able to slow down, the more fully you’ll experience things. We talk a lot about mindfulness. When we’re working, we’re talking through our feelings. Mindfulness is a big part of our conversations. Being mindful about the dough as you’re going through, you’ll see how different variables are affecting the dough, and what you need to do to respond to that. Same thing when you’re interacting with a person - if you’re present with what’s actually happening in the moment, you’ll be able to respond according to what that person actually needs.
Comparing it to yeasted bread - you follow a recipe, and pretty much every time it happens the same way. If we think about our interactions with people in terms of their formulas, “If I do this, then they’ll respond this way.” I just need to tell Jess that I like her shirt and she’s going to be fine. But every day Jess is different, and she’s going to respond differently.
JH: It takes you out of the position of being a controller of your interactions. Instead you have to shift or change.
CW: And intuition is a big part of that. Something that we talk about in our workshops is the balance between science and intuition in baking, especially in sourdough baking. Because things are constantly changing. The season affects the bread. In spring, it’s getting warmer, the bread is rising faster, but then also, as the workshop is happening, it’s spring, and people in the workshop are acting differently. People are louder, they’re more –
JH: They’re harder to handle –
CW: Which is fun, but then we have to adjust the way we do our workshops. In the winter, we found we were rushing through everything, worried we wouldn’t have enough time, but then we would end an hour early, so it wasn’t necessary to do that. In the springtime and going into the summer, people are going to get more active and bubbly.
FULL: What does a workshop consist of?
JH: The first interactive thing we do in the workshop is feeding the starter. That part of the workshop takes about 40 minutes. The starter is the most important part of the bread and takes the most time. Then we’ve broken down the sourdough cycle into seven steps. We go through each step, demonstrating it, except for baking. At the end of the workshop, everyone gets to take home a loaf -
CW: - and bake it the next day. We concentrate on the starter for so long because if you’re starting with something that’s healthy, your product is bound to be more successful, even if you make a mistake at another stage.
JH: If something goes wrong, most of the time you can trace it back to a problem with your starter.
FULL: When you talk about a healthy starter, what does that mean to you?
CW: Well, a healthy starter is active and alive, but when we talk about our bread being healthy, first of all, it’s super simple, so that’s always going to be easier for your body to digest. We use three ingredients – flour, water, and sea salt. We use a lot of white flour, but it’s organic and comes from whole grains. It’s local and freshly milled. Then the bread is fermented for 19-24 hours, so that breaks down the gluten. When gluten is fermenting with water for that long, it breaks the grain down so that the nutrients are more accessible for our bodies. Wheat in its whole, pure form is really good for us. But sometimes our bodies have trouble digesting grains and accessing the nutrients; when it’s soaked and fermented for this long, we can access them.
JH: There’s no added sugar and it digests slower, so it’s better for diabetics. What Cora was saying about the fermenting process means that our bread is fine for gluten-sensitive people. There are books that attack gluten, but it actually has a lot to do with the preservatives in products that contain gluten, and also the way that gluten is processed.
CW: The type of bread that we’re making now is like the original leavened bread. It was when people wanted baking to be more convenient that they started adding commercial yeast and all sorts of other things to make bread fluffy and stay on the shelf. Changing the process of how wheat is used is what has made people gluten intolerant. With sourdough, we’re going back to the traditional, simple –
JH: Back to the basics.