By Fateema Sayani
A sourdough starter offers a number of advantages when baking bread.
For one, sourdough makes for a more complex flavour, compared to those breads made with commercial yeast. Sourdough is also a natural preservative. Have you ever seen those rock-solid rolls and loaves in bakery windows? That’s sourdough bread: it hardens without looking all rank and mouldy.
Jessica Carpinone, 27, is explaining the many benefits of sourdough in much more complex — almost molecular — detail. She’s a scientist by training with a BSc in bio-pharmaceutical science and an MSc in evolutionary biology. She’s also the owner of the Bread By Us bakery and coffee shop to open later this month beside the Victoria Pharmacy on West Wellington at Merton Street. It’s in the old Carbon Computing spot where people used to take their Sad Macs to get fixed. For weeks, Carpinone has been renovating the space to make room for a coffee counter, bread shelves, and an open baking area.
Dust and drywall are at the top of the list on this particular day, but it’s clear that bread is her prime focus most of the time.
“You could categorize the leavening of bread in two different ways,” she explains. “One is commercial yeast: active, instant, or fresh — they’re all the same. The other is sourdough, which is basically using the yeast that is present all over us.”
Mmmmm. Sound delicious? Turns out that the ever-present yeast makes for some great flavours, which is about as mouthwatering as saying that bugs provide a good source of protein — true, if not immediately appetizing.
“Sourdough makes for a harder crust — and a wicked crust colour,” Carpinone says. “I hope to bring that into almost all of the breads on some level,” she says noting that commercial yeast is required for croissants and other breads that you don’t want to taste too tart.
The main offerings at Bread By Us will be croissants, loaves, and baguettes with some more extravagant breads for weekends and holidays — think focaccia, brioche, ciabatta, and panettone. Prices will run around $3-$4 for the daily items and around $10 for special occasion breads.
The shop will open around 7:45 a.m. to attract coffee-seeking commuters. The first breads will be in the oven around 8 a.m. with another batch coming out every hour until 3 p.m. Bread By Us will stay open until 7 p.m., allowing people to pick up a loaf for dinner. For walkers in the area, the bakery is located almost equidistant between The Ottawa Bagel Shop on West Wellington and Art Is In Bakery in the City Centre building.
It’s a new convenience along with the soon-to-open LCBO at Wellington and Garland Streets. Before The Hintonburg Market grocery store opened across from the community centre, the only option for staples in Hintonburg was The Giant Tiger and a few dry goods you could scrounge from the aisles of Dollarama. Now Bread By Us will fill a need, but it’s just for small orders. Carpinone says she won’t launch a commercial division — even though there is great demand after Art Is In bakery announced earlier this year that it would wind down its wholesale division.
“I’ve spoken with people in hotels and a few restaurants who expressed their dismay at the lack of good quality wholesale right now,” Carpinone says.
She says while she’d be happy to supply neighbouring restaurants with a few loaves, she isn’t interested in the logistical upkeep of wholesaling.
“I really respect Art Is In’s decision to pull back from that because bread is really one of those products that starts to lose its quality if it’s mass-produced,” she says. “From a baker’s perspective, I understand the decision. You want to keep your hands in everything.”
She has, however, promised to keep Murray Street stocked. She used to work at the meat emporium as a line cook, bread baker, and dessert maker.
Murray Street chef Steve Mitton says Carpinone is highly creative. “If I’m thinking of a particular dish, I’ll say to Jess, ‘Can you make this with bacon fat, or add duck fat to it or something?’ I did that a bunch of times and it was really good,” he says. “It was exciting to do something new and expand the menu.”
Mitton says Carpinone’s breads have a prominent tang because of the sourdough and it’s as if you can sense that you’re eating something derived from an ancient recipe. “It has this crustiness to it, this earthiness, this chew with perfect bubbles inside the bread so that you can feel every bit in your mouth,” he says. “You can almost taste every hour that’s put into it. It has that stickiness to it where flavour upon flavour builds.”
Carpinone has been working on her technique for years. She grew up in an Italian household in Nepean eating fresh bread made daily by her grandmother. After finishing her degrees, she worked in labour relations for the Public Service Alliance of Canada in Ottawa and Vancouver. That experience stayed with her and when it came time to set her business practices, she wanted to do things a little differently than the standard.
Her shop is set up a bit like a workers’ co-operative, with the exception that workers don’t need to make a financial investment to be a part of the co-op. Instead, Carpinone is asking for contributions of work and time.
“The way I’ve set it up isn’t that radical,” she says. “Profits will just be distributed between people differently,” she says noting that there is an offset for those who made an initial investment into getting the doors open.
Is it possible to provide a decent wage in an industry with famously difficult margins?
“It’s definitely not as common for employers to think about living wages,” Carpinone says, “I might be wrong, but it’s possible that a lot of food-related establishments go into it accepting the status quo with a model based on what everybody else does. I wanted to see if I could do it differently.”
In addition to the challenge of tweaking business models, Carpinone likes the mental stimulation that comes from bread making. Like with labour issues when making loaves, you always have to be thinking about your environment.
“Bakers move pretty slow, I find,” she says, “we always have our eyebrows winced and wondering because you have to adjust as conditions change. It’s something that’s always challenging.”
And there’s a litmus test. “To know if you’ve become a good baker, see if you can make one kind of bread 365 days of the year, no matter the season, no matter where you are,” she advises.
“I love to do it every day and that’s what pushed me to take it seriously as a profession,” Carpinone says. “It’s also so peaceful for me. I bake on my days off — I’m that person. I can’t get enough of it.”
Inspections are planned for this week, so Bread By Us should be open before year’s end.
Bread By Us, 1065 Wellington St. W., 613-422-5300