Beloved cook Julia Child once famously asked: “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”
Baked dough is a tricky medium with which to work: a carb-lover can be made or broken on the taste of a single slice. Was it made fresh by hand? Sign up the masses. Was it bought pre-sliced at a big-box grocery store? Stick to your yogurt and fruit parfait, pursed lips optional. There is not much room for middle ground in the middle of a loaf: either it’s a sensual experience, or it tastes like sawdust.
There are, of course, small-scale ventures fighting the good bread fight, building upon the baking foundations laid thousands of years ago. Vancouver’s Kristin Schwab, for one, has carved the mission down to a single variety: sourdough. And she can throw a punch.
It all began when Schwab was planning a vacation to Italy and knew she wanted to do more than just sit on a beach. “I wanted more of a thinking trip,” she recalls. So she began looking up what sort of cooking classes were available while she was there, and came across a sourdough-making program on a farm. All of the spots were already taken when she inquired, but she “said some sweet things” to the instructor and managed to coerce her way into the group. “It was seven of us making break for five days straight,” she says. The workshop was led by a 70-something British man who, upon seeing some Burt’s Bees lip chap in Schwab’s possession, admitted that his brother was Burt Shavitz. As in: the Burt of Burt’s Bees. It happened to be Burt’s birthday during their time together, so Schwab’s teacher asked if she wanted to talk to him. “I FaceTime-d Burt and told him happy birthday,” she says with a smile. “It was lovely.” What a way to learn.
When she came home, Schwab began playing with recipes and creating her own sourdough from scratch, giving loaves to friends and family. Soon, admirers wanted her to teach them her ways. “I didn’t really have a plan, I was just on vacation,” she says of taking that class in Italy. But now the purpose was starting to proof: a workshop of her own. She taught her first seminar in April of 2015 and realized she loved drawing people to the table over a shared love of dough. The first day of the workshop, people seemed shy and reserved, she remembers; but the second day, they came back energized, talkative, and open. “It wasn’t just about making bread anymore,” she says. “It was about bringing people together. Everyone has a story and I think that’s so cool to see.”
Now Schwab, who has a degree in kinesiology and works as a personal trainer during the week, runs Flour Water Salt, her artisan sourdough-making workshop, in her spare time. The two-day event is the definition of hands-on: participants measure, mix, knead, and shape their own dough, coming away with the tools and knowledge needed to make it on their own. She runs the workshop out of her little coach house in Vancouver’s sleepy South Granville; the small, rustic space is lined with hanging jars of candles, long plant vines, and antique wooden furniture. If there was ever a place to start feeling like a baker, this would likely be it. Each session only has space for a small handful of people, allowing Schwab to adequately teach everyone in the group and make sure each student is learning and having fun. The trailmix of attendees is half the enjoyment, with its amalgamation of avid home bakers and first-time kneaders.
The full days are broken up with lunch of fresh sourdough loaves and pizzas, naturally, and participants walk away with their own apron, baking stone, shaping tool, scrapers, bamboo cutting board, linen-lined banneton, and jar of starter to make batches again and again at home. That is the whimsical beauty of sourdough, after all: the same starter can be nurtured, fed, and grown for decades, allowing for years of fresh bread from the same little beginning. There is quite a science to the process, with different steps timed out to last certain lengths, and there is technique, too, with the various pulling, pressing, shaping, folding, and old-fashioned wrist kneading. And though complicated, the procedure is an easy one to follow and learn. The fun of baking is in the hands: no two loaves are the same, because no two palms that molded them are.
Schwab is approachable and knowledgeable, slowing down when needed but equally willing to offer up additional tips and tricks as people get more comfortable asking questions. If there is something she doesn’t know the answer to, she will say so up front—and then pull out one of her cookbooks to dutifully search for the answer. It all comes back to education, and there is always more to learn: kneads get tighter, pulls get quicker, loaves get rounder. The students of Flour Water Salt leave the second day with multiple cloth-wrapped bundles of fresh-baked bread. Perhaps the only thing better than knowing a loaf was made with your own two hands is bringing it to dinner and watching it disappear.
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