When Andrew Whitley was invited to speak at the Kneading Conference West 2012 in Mount Vernon, Washington, Victoria-based writer Rhona McAdam (who had attended an Andrew’s Whole Grain Baking workshop in Scotland earlier this year) knew she had to jump at the chance to have him come to nearby Vancouver Island, BC and teach. So she put together a weeklong program of teaching and discovery for him (neither Andrew nor his wife Veronica had ever been to Canada) and I was lucky enough to be able to participate, at Diane Andiel‘s suggestion, in Daily Bread, the baking workshop which Andrew led on Saturday, September 22 at the Royal Oak Middle School in Victoria, BC.
Not only was I very excited to get to learn from Andrew, if only for a day, but Victoria holds a special sway on my heart and imagination as a city where the local food movement is alive, well and bold. I have yet to read, Digging the City: An Urban Agriculture Manifesto, the book which Rhona just published (I have it on pre-order for my e-reader and should get it by mid-October) but I already knew that beyond the bright flower baskets, the colorful totems and the ceaseless ballet of roaring seaplanes over the harbor, not to mention the upscale and touristy afternoon teas at the Empress hotel, there was a vibrant city pulling itself by its roots so to speak, with urban farmers raising chickens, energetic young gardeners biking around to pick up compostable waste and citizens growing their own fruit and vegetables on their balconies or their decks or in their backyard.
On the night I arrived in Victoria, I went straight from the Clipper terminal to a lively panel discussion on alternative ways to support a local food economy: Andrew Whitley was there, making a case for community-supported baking (CSB) and explaining that CSB can take many forms: providing capital to buy equipment or rent premises; contributing labor or offering administrative support; helping out with product distribution, etc.
Another panelist, fisherman Guy Johnston, described the community-supported fishery (CSF) he had established. Now in its second year, the CSF had gone from 65 members the first year to 130 today: the members buy a share of the crop (prawns, octopus and salmon) ahead of the season, providing fishermen with guaranteed income from sustainable fishing. Knowing pre-season how much fish they should bring back made a huge difference (I was reminded of that fact when reading in the New York Times earlier this week that many fishermen in Spain couldn’t keep up the payments on their vessels).
Another panel participant, Angela Moran, an urban farmer, explained how she had successfully enlisted her neighbors’ help in managing her flock of chickens: everyone took turns in caring for the chickens and in exchange got a share of the eggs they produced.
Andrew Whitley – who lives and works near Edinburgh – said that food was a powerful connector to help weave social traffic and that the emerging community schemes in the Victoria area reminded him of Nourish Scotland, a movement which existed “to reconnect producers, growers, retailers, consumers and all who care for local, sustainable food in Scotland” and which aimed, among other things, to change local food economies. A key element of food security was the resilience stemming from the knowledge that these local networks could not be bought: built on human relationships, they were based on the desire to relate, which wasn’t for sale.
I wish I could show you pictures of Andrew demonstrating how to make bread (especially his fascinating air-kneading technique) but he had outlawed photography and so my camera remained in my backpack. Rhona was allowed to click away for a while however and she was kind enough to share her pictures so that you can at least have an idea of the setup:
As you can see, space was limited (which meant no notebooks on tables either) but it all worked out (note to self: great networking opportunities are to be found in tight quarters!).
Andrew had us bake four different kinds of breads:
- A 100% wholewheat no-knead bread (straight dough) which some of us shaped in a braid
- 33% wholewheat rolls for which he had prepared an overnight sponge
- A plain sourdough 100% rye (from his book Bread Matters, pp. 160-166)
- Pre-fermented 55% wholewheat spicy buns (from the same book, pp. 154-155)
Andrew has developed his own method for maintaining a rye levain and I will describe it in details in another post as soon as I make his sourdough rye at home (which should be very soon as the rye culture is already bubbling away).
A lively instructor, he kept a running commentary that made for instructive and entertaining baking. As you may already know (especially if you have read his book), he is a big fan of whole grains, high hydration and long fermentations. He thinks that commercially available white flour is dead flour and even though his baking repertory does include white bread, back home he uses a stoneground flour that retains more of the nutrients. Baking a loaf with a super airy crumb isn’t clearly not his top priority: as he puts it, “big holes in a crumb means white flour and no nutrition.”
Of course he had access to none of his regular flours in Victoria and I believe he was slightly puzzled by the way the unfamiliar (to him) Canadian flours handled themselves: they required more water than their British counterparts and yielded a dough that was more difficult to manage. At one point he had his assistant, Barbara, wash a piece of dough under running water until only the gluten strands remained. They were tightly packed and the whole thing looked rather like an used chewing gum. It was a striking sight (I wish I could have taken a picture!) which brought in sharp relief the true nature of gluten (which should surprise no one since its name is derived from the Latin word for glue). Andrew said that trick was a good way for the baker to evaluate the protein content of a flour when the information wasn’t readily available otherwise.
Generally speaking the breads didn’t come out as plump and golden as they could have and I believe that beyond the flours (which would have benefited from a pre-workshop test but there had been no time for that), the ovens were also rather a disappointment: the class took place in an home economics classroom equipped with homestyle stoves and steaming wasn’t an option. But it really didn’t matter. Bread matters and in that respect, Andrew’s knowledge, passion and commitment are stellar; they made for a memorable workshop. Thank you, Andrew (for teaching the class), Rhona (for organizing it), Diane (for generously helping out with the ingredients and the pre-ferments) and Barbara (for making the whole thing run smoothly)!
Andrew Whitley’s Spicy Buns
Farming in Greater Victoria: other images