Last August, I decided to write about the Island’s best bakeries. I embarked on a journey that took me through the Cowichan and Comox Valleys, down highways and harrowing country roads.
I’m done now. I’ve found them. I’ve got the photos and notes. I’ve worked out the bones of what I think is a pretty decent post, and I’ve decided something.
I don’t want to share my list with you. It’s not that I don’t trust you, I actually feel we’ve become quite close. But my best bakeries aren’t something I feel ready to share. It’s not that I lack words, either; I have plenty: warm, stretchy, sticky, flaky, chewy, crumbly, fluffy, fresh, savoury.
Here’s the thing. If I tell you where they are, my bakeries, you might go to them. You might go before me and buy the last fritter, or the last loaf of potato-onion bread. You might buy the last cinnamon bun. And if you did that, we couldn’t be friends.
But you know, I think we are friends. So, I’m going to trust you. I’m going to trust you to think of me when you go, and to not buy the last thing. And if it is the last thing, I want you to call me. I’ll come right over. We’ll meet over an espresso, or a tea, or maybe a beer, and we’ll break bread, and we’ll have a wag, and wonder how we managed to get by before we knew about these places.
Cinnamon buns at Old Town Bakery.
Outside the Old Town Bakery, there’s a (slightly smaller than) life-sized chess board. On a bench, a young man is bravely one-handing a cinnamon bun the size of his head. Inside, the only thing between me and the warm, sweet, sticky, moist thing I’m craving is a thin pane of glass and the other three people in line. I quietly plan their murders while I wait my turn.
Yes. Moist. I use that word, even though it’s awful, knowing that the available alternatives: ‘not dry’, ‘crumb’, whatever, fall fatally short.
Anyway, I ordered four buns that day, and they were all good. Great even. Three of them were good enough to write home about.
And then, well, sometimes there’s a thing that ruins all the other things like it. A thing so good, it sets the bar in a place that Sergey Bubka would have a hard time jumping. It has happened in my life only once before.
In Vancouver, there’s a place called Szechuan Chongqing. At Szechuan Chongqing, the staff are slightly rude. The food is, probably, loaded with MSG. And it’s an epiphany. You’ll wonder how you managed to get through life without it (or at least, I do).
What was I talking about? Right, buns. Of the four buns, there was one: the Peanut Butter and Cream Cheese, and it changed my life. I’ll never look at another cinnamon bun again in the same way. I’m salivating now just thinking about it. It’s exactly the right mix of chewy, stretchy dough and creamy, peanut buttery icing. Really a beautiful thing.
Four, by the way, is far too many. I was hard-pressed to eat one. So, at home, we let the buns (the bits we didn’t finish) go stale. Then we cut them into bits. We took some Bird’s Custard, some raisins, some milk, and put it all into a casserole dish, and we smushed it up with our hands. Then we let it sit for about three hours. Then we baked it at 325 for another two. Honestly? Best bread pudding I’ve ever had.
Potato-onion bread at Bodhi’s.
Really, I don’t think there’s any point in blathering on about Bodhi’s Artisan Bakery (there’s plenty on Yelp, and Urban Spoon). The potato onion bread, the pane artigianale (I just made that up), is a rustic revelation.
Instead of going on about crumb, or mouthfeel, I’ll tell you a story about the first time I tried Bodhi’s bread. It was summer, and we have a fair amount of sage at home. I’d clarified some butter, which I planned on mixing with chopped sage to preserve it.
If you’ve ever clarified butter, you’ll know it involves skimming froth from the top of slowly melted butter. That froth is whey protein. Normally, it’s a waste product.
This time, I’m home, and the bread from Bodhi is still warm, and so’s the whey. And you know, if we didn’t just sit there and tear into that potato onion loaf and spoon the warm, salty whey right onto each and every savoury morsel.
Holy Hannah, it was good. I sat there, slavering away, butter dribbling down my chin and over my fingers. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t care. Right then, manners didn’t matter. All that did was me, Bodhi’s bread, and the warm, salty butter.
Saison Market Vineyard, North Cowichan.
My third bakery, Saison Market Vineyard, isn’t open right now. They won’t be for more than a month (March 2015, according to their website).
When they do open, it will be for two days every week.
On their opening weekend, I’ll drive down a long country trail, pulling over to allow for tractors and other cars. The road is barely wide enough. I’ll stop for the occasional crossing cow, or other livestock as is appropriate.
Eventually, I’ll emerge into the region’s best kept secret. I’ll find fresh baked loaves of bread, seasonal produce, fine wine, friendly faces enjoying the day’s fare, and a warm, aromatic cup of coffee. I may take my bread to go, as most times, the market is standing room only. But if I can squeeze into a table, I might stay and take my coffee on the patio.
There’s something about this place, this market, it’s the best of rural lifestyle, with a bit of french bistro mixed in. I talked about it before, the green market economy.
It’s not transactional. Not really. If you’re going to go, it demands that you stop and enjoy it for a minute, or two, or twenty. Anything less would be uncivilized, if that’s such a thing.
Red fife baguette at True Grain Bread.
Let’s talk about local for a minute, and what I think it means. To me, local isn’t a boundary so much as an idea, or a belief, or a principle. To stand on the plot of land where your food was grown or raised, to breathe in the air and soil, to think about the journey.
I believe that places shape flavours. Where they are, who lives on and in them. Farm to table doesn’t just mean local, or fresh. It means you connect with a farmer, you buy their food, and you eat it; with them, if possible. Then you thank them for it.
My fourth bakery, True Grain Bread in Cowichan Bay understands that. Much of the grain they use in their fresh baked bread is grown right here on Vancouver Island. They have a mill, made from granite and pine, where they grind their locally-sourced grains into the flours they use to make the breads they serve. Being able to trace True Grain’s bread back to its beginnings, to the farms where it all started, it makes every loaf better.
Every time I visit, I go for the red fife baguette. To me, it exemplifies their commitment to locally-grown grains and artisan breads. And it’s not one particular red fife recipe; it’s all of them. It’s the method, above all, that inspires me here.
Apple fritter at Cumberland Village Bakery.
It was a lazy Saturday when I decided to try Cumberland Village Bakery. To get there takes just over an hour along Highway 19a, but I’m told that what I find at the end will be worth it. This is when gas prices were up around $1.50/litre or so.
What I’ll find, I’m told, is a freshly fried apple fritter.
To make a fresh fritter is, for many I’m sure, not worth the effort. They’re deep fried, not baked, which adds entirely new dimensions of complexity to the cooking process. In many cases the fritter would be fried the day before so it could be served up the following day. To me, there’s something really wrong about that. Would you serve me yesterday’s french fries?
You wouldn’t. Of course you wouldn’t. It’s that reason that the only place you find a fritter these days is in the display case at a Tim Horton’s. Bakers, real bakers, have too much pride in their product to try and pass a day-old dessert as something fresh.
On the plain wall of the small bakery, there’s an impressive array of awards. When I arrive, things are pretty quiet, which turns out to be luck. Within moments, there’s a lineup behind me that extends out the door.
If you like flaky, sweet, deep-fried things, then put down whatever it is you’re doing. Get in your car and start driving north. On the quiet main street of Cumberland, you’ll see a small, nondescript building with a hand painted sign and a line up going out the door. Don’t be deceived by the outwardly unimpressive appearance. Inside are the donuts of the gods. Manna from heaven.
The stuff of life.
Bread, in all its forms, is life. It is love. Bread baked by hand, even the misshapen loaves I manage to make, is a special thing that can’t be copied on an industrial scale. It is the heart and soul of cuisine.
If you like food, then you, like me probably like Anthony Bourdain. Like me, Anthony has an unhealthy love affair with good food in all its forms. Check out this segment from his show, the Layover, where French bakers wax poetic on the importance of bread.
Any bakeries I forgot? Let me know in the comments below.