I first met Cliff Leir, owner of Fol Épi Bakery (“fol épi” is French for “wild wheatstalk”) in Victoria, British Columbia, at the Kneading Conference West 2011 where he gave a talk on building your own bakery complete with a separate mill room and a wood-fired brick oven. Despite his relatively young age (he was then 33), he had already been baking in Victoria for 14 years. He had been at his new location for eighteen months or so.
Fol Épi is located at Dockside Green, a new development in a previously industrial part of Victoria harbor
Cliff explained that he built silos behind his bakery so that he could buy his grain directly from farmers, a setup which benefits both himself and the farmers: he gets a tastier (if sometimes less predictible) product than by purchasing from a distributor and the farmers get a better deal. The only wheat he uses in his bread is organic Red Fife, a heritage grain he buys in Saskatchewan (he gets his pastry flour from Ontario). Since he only had room for a pair of silos, he bakes with two grains exclusively: wheat and rye. He mills his flours himself.
Cliff described how he built his oven with the help of friends and how he learned to dress his milling stones (through Web searches and by attending milling workshops). He explained that he hydrates the wheat before milling (but never the rye) and he talked about developing a tactile feel for the dough (a true self-taught man, he never went to baking school). He shared the plans he had designed for the oven, the mill and bakery. He detailed his initial investment and his current operating costs. Basically he laid it all out for the aspiring baker/entrepreneur, making building and running your own bakery sound both like a huge amount of work and an exhilarating endeavor. I have no doubt both are accurate descriptions.
So when I found out I was going to Victoria, I emailed Cliff and asked if he would be willing to talk to me about this 50% whole wheat bread and maybe share his formula. He wrote back to say that he would be happy to do so but that it might be hard to find a moment as his workdays were always a bit frantic. Indeed the first time I went to the bakery, back in early April, he was in a rush. He showed me around (that was quick as the bakery is tiny) and we agreed to meet again in May since I was coming back to town to visit Diane Andiel.
Red Fife’s white flour milled at Fol Épi
Red Fife whole grain flour milled at Fol Épi (see the gorgeous bran flakes!)
The second time, Cliff was just as rushed (he had to feed the starters and finish some chores before getting his younger son from school) but he kindly took the time to sit with me and go over his formula. He also gave me two kilos each of his freshly milled Red Fife all-purpose and whole wheat flours (he mills 100 kg of flour a day, most of which white) so that I could try baking the bread at home. I didn’t ask to visit the bakery again (which is why I don’t have more pictures to post) as I could see work was proceeding at a frantic pace in the background: pizzas were going in and out of the oven like clockwork and baskets of fresh loaves were constantly beeing rolled to the front.
He told me how he built his first brick oven in his driveway at age 19, how he learned his trade by trial and error, how he started selling bread to his neighbors, then at a farmer’s market, how he opened his first bakery (Wildfire Bakery on Quadra Street) with a partner and learned about Red Fife wheat through a Slow Food Canada initiative, how he and his partner parted ways and he spent a few years building his present bakery. For a vivid description of Cliff’s journey as a baker from the moment he “discovered” Red Fife, you may want to read Mixing Up Change, the three-part article he wrote for the Baker’s Journal: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) as he tells it much better than I ever could. If, like me, you are interested in the heritage grain movement, you may also enjoy reading this article on the Red Fife community by Saskatchewan writer Penny McKinley. It is a measure of Cliff’s modesty as an artisan that when I complimented him on his 50% whole wheat bread – definitely the best I have ever sampled in its category – he attributed its taste and beautiful crumb to the flavor and excellent baking properties of the Red Fife…
According to Terra Madre – 1200 World Food Communities, a Slow Food Editore publication dated October 2004, “Today, Red Fife has survived due to the work of only a handful of organic heritage wheat and seed farmers scattered across Canada who have been faithfully growing the wheat to keep it from extinction. Artisan bread made from Red Fife wheat has a yellow crumb with an intense scent of herbs and vegetables colored with a light acidity. The nose has notes of anise and fennel, and in the mouth the bread is unexpectedly rich with a slightly herby and spicy flavor.”
Wow, I wish I had thought of all these flavors when I described tasting Cliff’s 50% whole Red Fife bread for the first time but really I would have been making it up: I detect neither fennel nor anise although the intense scent of herbs and vegetables may be what I read as the fragrance of wheat berries ripening in the fierce Western Canadian sun. As to spiciness, I don’t know, I have tasted many wheats that were way spicier than this one.
I detect no acidity either in Cliff’s 50% whole wheat bread and that’s because, Cliff’s modesty nothwithstanding, grain only tells part of the story. Controlled fermentation tells the rest. All of his breads are made with naturally leavened starters and the 50% whole wheat results from a process in which a small amount of levain ferments the dough very slowly at a cool temperature over a long period of time.
Fol Épi uses organic gray sea salt and filtered water (no chlorine). As explained above, the wheat is freshly milled and the flour is allowed to rest for at least six days (and no more than two or three weeks) before being used for baking.
I was so happy to be going home with some of this wheat I clutched it to my chest like the treasure that it was. We sailed through customs (the customs officer completely lost interest when I told him that we had visited bakers and were only bringing back flours and breads) and once home, I split the bags and sent one kilo of each flour to my friend Gérard Rubaud in Vermont so that he could try the Red Fife for himself. I baked two big loaves with the remaining flours.
Related post: 50% Whole Red Fife Wheat Bread (baked at home)