For the past six months I have been working on a sustainable farm on the western edge of St. Thomas. One of my last blog posts before ignoring this website for a while was about a few local farms. As it turns out, one of them is where I ended up spending many of my summer and fall days.
On Our Little Farm we run a CSA program (community supported agriculture) and raise pastured pork, chickens, and ducks. At the farm is a mobile wood-fired oven on a trailer. This oven at one time was parked outside the landowner's garage and each day at the farm I would walk by it dreaming of when we would fire it up. Now that vegetables are done for the year and the animals are taken care of by Mark (he and his family began Our Little Farm), everyone had a little bit of time to spare to see just what this beautiful beast could do. Timed with a pickup date for the pastured pork, Wednesday Dec. 3 was the perfect opportunity to do some baking in the oven.
Sometimes I wish I had more hands. That way I could mix dough and take better photos at the same time.
The pics below are a basic tutorial demonstrating a few techniques I use to make a loaf of bread. In this slideshow, I use locally milled Red Fife wheat (thought to be the oldest wheat varietal in Canada) and a natural leaven - otherwise known as a sourdough starter - to bake a loaf of country style hearth bread. The bread doesn't have a strong sour flavour, but does have a slightly sweet and nutty taste from the use of whole grain flour. The interior is very tender and moist with a mix of large and small holes; the crust is crisp and hearty. The dough makes great bread - but also fantastic pizza.
Enjoy the show!
If you follow me on this blog or on Facebook, you know I have a sweet tooth. And a bread tooth. And a cheese tooth. And a vegetable, fruit, and meat tooth. I focus on preserves and baked goods, but I'm also highly skilled (toot toot) in other culinary arts as well (duck legs are currently curing as I type for duck confit). Always having a fondness for pastry (both eating and preparing), the reason I decided to focus on the dessert side of the menu was because our area was/is severely lacking in high-quality desserts.
Restaurants are ordering their frozen cheesecakes and butter tarts from food distributors shipping out of Toronto. They also purchase buckets of ready-to-bake mixes that take the pesky hassle of actually making their desserts with carefully selected ingredients. As a bonus, diners get wonderful doses of unnecessary additives like artificial food dyes, artificial flavourings, three or four different sugars, hydrogenated vegetable fats derived from genetically modified corn or soy, and environmentally damaging products like palm oils. The carbon footprint left behind from the use of mostly imported ingredients (whatever is the cheapest!), and transportation costs are staggering. Often times they just taste awful.
The imported desserts do nothing positive for a local sustainable food system. Using 0% local and the lack of pride taken in preparing and serving high quality food is what really sours my mouth.
Keeping with the thought "be the change you want to see in the world", I've spent several years, and way more money than I can afford, to push the importance of supporting local. Yes, there are local businesses, and they need support, but
I'm talking about the local businesses that actually use local ingredients in their products. Those businesses have more challenges facing them in an already challenging industry. It frequently costs more because farmers' deserve to be paid a fair price for their work, but so do the tradesmen and women who turn them into value added products.
I've attended a few meetings in the past few weeks centered around local foods. Although I was surprised to find see the number of food-related groups and associations within Elgin County, a few gaps were apparent to me from my chef point of view. First, lack of culinary education. Second, kitchens to work from. Third, Elgin culinary history. Fourth, a formal analysis of Elgin's food cultures. Fifth, good bread.
With all the sourdough experiments taking place in the kitchen over the past several months, there always seems to be a partial loaf of bread waiting to be sliced. In the quest for oven spring, crackling crust, and an irregular gelatinized crumb, my recipe books have become dotted with post-it notes and the freezer full of back up loaves. Whereas I once ate porridge or fruit or eggs for breakfast, everyday now starts or ends with toast & jam. High-hydration bread doughs have changed baking for me.
Like many people, I struggle to find my place in the world. I am, at time, my own worst enemy and fiercest critic. But I also am most my loyal comforter, my own soul sister.
As I mature, I learn. That's pretty much what I have always done and I see no reason to ever alter that pattern. Why would I want to go to cheese making school? To learn, of course! There is only so much I can soak in from Youtube, Google, Chapters, and the library and I learn by watching, listening, doing, and most importantly - sharing. We all have our limitations to what looks, smells, sounds, and tastes like good food.
But perhaps it's time to do something different.
Although not religious, I do believe spirituality is an essential element in a healthy life and very personal choice. Kind of like food is. You are what you eat. A healthy gut is a happy gut.
It may be a new year, but 2014 feels very different. Like a door is closing behind me, gently; a well lit, untrampled green lies ahead. There is no defined path, but it is lined with friendly, familiar faces. Faces of those who have taught, inspired, and guided me. Supportive, influential, positive.
I owe it to them as much as to my self to succeed. Whatever that means.
Let's eat, shall we?
My contract working in the west end of the county ended in December which freed up some time to make a long overdue trip to visit one of my older brothers and his family (I think it's safe to say they are my family too). I brought along my sourdough starter and the Tartine Bread cookbook and although my family thought I was odd for traveling with a yeasty-smelling container of bubbling flour and dough, they did appreciate the flaky, buttery croissants it helped leaven. Sourdough doesn't have to be sour.
Still working from Tartine Bread, I was able to bake some English muffins as well. I've made English muffins many times with commercial yeast, but using the starter and fermenting the dough overnight produced an incredible tasting muffin complete with random sized bubbles just waiting to be filled with melted butter or oozing egg yolk. You don't get that kind of flavour with dough that has only been proving for an hour and a half. My only trouble was I didn't bring rice flour which helps prevent the wet dough from sticking to the cloth while it rises.
Now this, this is what I think is the green path that lies before me. In this picture are three cheeses, cabecou (made by moi), le cendrillon (from Montreal), and a soft-ripened cheese from Monforte Dairy in Stratford. The bread is slices of toasted corn & spelt baguette. Using locally milled flours from both HOPE Eco Farms east of Aylmer and Arva Flour Mills north of London, I attempted a recipe from Tartine 3. Tartine 3 is a cookbook written by the same chef as Tartine Bread, but the chef focuses on using whole grains and flours, much of them ancient or heirloom varieties, to produce bread and pastry with more nutritional benefits and most importantly - deeper flavours.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.