© The Scugog Standard, 2007
Jim Wills, Prince Albert’s artisan bread maker, was forced into the kitchen at an early age.
“It’s a family joke that my brothers and I got into food because our mother was such a terrible cook. But she could bake with her eyes closed.”
An avid cook and bread lover, Jim turned his attention to baking when he became frustrated that there was simply nowhere to buy a good baguette. He had been baking in his kitchen oven for years before he discovered that there was a better, more traditional, way to make bread.
After an intensive web search, Jim started building his own backyard wood-fired oven - brick by brick - two years ago from plans he ordered over the Internet.
“It took quite a while,” he said, “from spring to fall. I had to build it in stages, waiting for the mortar to cure, otherwise it would have cracked.”
The finished product, a high mass oven with a four foot by three foot cooking floor, “weighs something in the order of 30 tons.”
In the “If you build it you will bake” tradition, Jim started Mary G’s Artisan Breads last year, in part as a tribute to his mother, Mary Gertrude, who died in 2002. The micro-bakery, which produces labour-intensive gourmet breads from bagels to boule and everything in between, is currently baking to order and shipping to Toronto, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
On baking days, Thursday and Friday of each week (additional days in warmer weather), Jim bakes six or seven different kinds of breads daily (some as heavy as one-and-three-quarter pounds and eight inches around) - or 30 to 40 loaves in a week. And he uses all-natural ingredients.
“I absolutely refuse to use any artificial stuff of any sort,” Jim said. “My bread is about as pure as you can get.”
Part of Jim’s delicious secret to success is baking with wild yeast, a living organism that he has been carefully cultivating (or “keeping happy”) for the past two years and which grows more complex as it ages. Along with his own wild yeast Jim uses sundried sea salt from Brittany, France, and soft, fresh water that he collects by the jugfull from a fellow north of Oakwood.
He uses 20 kilos of freshly milled flour a week and, although organic flours are still price prohibitive, he is optimistically engaged in negotiations with an organic miller close to Port Perry. (“Have you ever looked at the ingredients in a bag of flour? If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want it in my bread. And when was it milled? There is no expiry date on the bag!”)
Jim’s hearth breads take three days to make, and just preparing the dough is an art form. “It sounds like voodoo,” said Jim, “but it’s really chemistry.”
He lets the dough rise for two to four hours, then places it in a rising basket and refrigerates - or “retards” - it overnight. “You want to slow down the yeast and give the other bugs a chance to work. They attach themselves to the bran and break out all kinds of flavour - natural sugars from the grain, for example - but it takes time. Yeast slows with a drop in temperature, but the enzymes and lactobacilli in the yeast keep working. You wouldn’t get the same flavour with a faster rise.”
Then, during baking, the heat caramelizes the sugars to form a cinnamon or charcoal coloured crust.
You can’t get that effect in your kitchen oven. It doesn’t get hot enough. Jim’s wood-fired brick oven burns so hot that when you open the draft door, it’s “like something from Star Trek. The air is actually on fire.”
The floor - which is the baking surface (no pans required) - is heated to 900 degrees, then cools to 550 degrees as the heat migrates into the mass of the oven. Three days after firing, and after multiple bakes (a baguette bakes at 550 degrees and is done in 12 minutes) the temperature on the oven floor is still 275 degrees.
In spite of the intense heat inside, the oven is so well insulated that the only part of the exterior that even gets warm is the spot right in front of the chimney, and that is “never too hot that you can’t put your hand on it,” said Jim, who welcomes the warmth in the cold winter months.
This is ancient technology at work. Extant wood-fired baking ovens have been found in Egypt and the best-preserved specimens are in Pompeii. Although there are fewer than 10 backyard micro-bakery brick ovens in Ontario, they are enjoying a huge resurgence in Europe, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. The reason, according to Jim? “People got tired of going to the supermarket and buying lousy bread.”
With a number of cookbooks under his belt and favourite recipes from around the world at his fingertips thanks to the Internet, Jim is “constantly messing” with his ingredients.
“I’d get bored silly if I did the same thing all the time.” Right now he is experimenting with a bread that features toasted sunflower, sesame, poppy and pumpkin seeds, but he has baked breads with such unlikely ingredients as roasted garlic potatoes and spinach and strong cheeses including blue, Gorgonzola and Stilton.
And Jim is more than happy to custom design his breads to satisfy the individual palettes of his clients. For people who suffer from an intolerance to wheat, he bakes with gluten-free grains or spelt, a low-gluten grass that is the precursor to modern wheat.
“I’m really open to working with people,” said Jim. “They tell me what they want and I see if I can do it.” Of course, it’s a trial and error business, and it doesn’t always come out right the first time around.
“And if I don’t like it, I won’t sell it.”
Mary G’s Artisan Breads will be a host site for this year’s Open Doors tour, and as more people discover Prince Albert’s best kept secret, Jim Wills will have to think about building a bigger oven and maybe acquiring a second site and some staff.
With the exception of the cleanup - “I never thought about how many dishes I’d have to wash!” - Baker Jim is happy with his modest backyard operation. “I’m really enjoying it,” he said, but admits there’s room for both expansion and improvement.
In a recent e-mail message, England’s backyard bread guru Jack Lang - who has been baking bread in a wood-fired oven for 25 years - wrote Jim: “One day, and it might be soon, I will bake the perfect loaf of bread.”
It’s a long shot, but Jim is hopeful that he, too, might someday achieve perfection. For now, he is content to enjoy trying.
To follow Jim on his quest, log on to www.marygbread.com. To be part of the journey, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 905-985-8957.
Two-Day Wood-Fired Bread Workshops
Weekends, April to early December
This is an intensive, hands-on course from Head Baker Jim Wills that will get you started making artisan breads or hone the skills you already have, show you the magic of wood-fired baking, change the way you think about the bread you eat, and give you a hearty taste of the breads you’ve made with your own hands. Class size is limited to four.
¶ Dough theory
¶ Ingredients (selection, weight versus volume measurement)
¶ Wild yeasts
¶ Mixers & dough temperature
¶ Hand kneading
¶ Dough preparation for two-day breads
¶ Bulk fermentation, folding, dividing, scaling, shaping
¶ Retardation (theory & practice)
¶ Wood selection & curing
¶ Oven firing (pm)
¶ Oven temperature management and additional firing
¶ Dough preparation for one-day breads
¶ Bulk fermentation, folding, dividing, scaling, shaping
¶ Oven tool use (rake, brush, swab)
¶ Steam and good bread
¶ Baking temperatures and times
¶ Eating! (pm)
Each participant will take away the bread formulas used during the course, the bread he or she has made, plus a portion of Mary G’swild yeast starter to propagate at home (instructions included).