I first met Dan Wing when he showed up on my doorstep and generously offered to help me with whatever would further the cause of "Ovencrafters." Dan had come to California to be with his wife, who relocated for a while to Berkeley to be nearer her grandchild. Temporarily un-harnessed from his profession as a doctor, and far from their Vermont home and his beloved workshop, Dan was hot to find a worthwhile local project to which he could apply his talents, and which would tap his abundant energy and enthusiasm. My often started but never completed book about masonry ovens and the Flemish "Desem" bread was one project that immediately appealed.
Dan quickly found his feet on familiar ground; as a bread baker, an oven builder, and an already published author, he was qualified for the task ahead. It was not long before every book, file, and photo in my office was unearthed, scrutinized, and absorbed by this dynamic new "super apprentice" from the East. For some considerable time after that the place retained the distinct feeling of the starting line of the Indianapolis 500 after the racers had sped off. More visits followed in succession, as Dan lapped the course, flying by in hot pursuit of his quest. Ovencrafters would never again be that quiet, rural, home-based, one-man, not-for-profit (by default, that is) business it once was. Never.
My path to California was different. After growing up in Australia and living for a time in Denmark, I came here from two very different "democracies," both small, both very socialized if a little restrictive personally. California is anything but restrictive for the individual, since private venture is king. And yet outside of one’s home environment, and apart from the region’s natural splendor, farms and park lands, California tends to be a rather stark wasteland dominated by the automobile. Small-town America had already been brushed aside in the rush to profitable "development"—or had it? Fortunately I discovered the small, rural townships of western Marin County, and moved into a comfortable renovated barn on half an acre at the edge of one of them. My determination to live and work in a small community, to be always on hand for family and friends, meant honing up on appropriate survival skills: renovations in exchange for rent, a grain mill, an outdoor oven, two milk goats, a large vegetable garden, a corn patch, and a few fruit trees. For cash and community service, I had a welding and fix-it shop at the front gate. Life was grand.
All too soon, however, I was ejected from the garden into the real world of single parenting, of "soccer mums," of house hunting, of first and last month’s rent, shared child care, and job searching. But better than a job I eventually salvaged the bread baking part of my former life and took this to the next level. Necessity again proven to be the mother of invention, so was born a successful baking business based on one bread alone. I built a commercial oven and bakery at home for less than a month’s pay, gathered firewood free from the neighboring farms, and baked and delivered warm bread to friends and neighbors on two days each week. One pound of organic wheat at seventeen cents, with almost zero overhead, became a loaf of bread worth three dollars. As little as 250 loaves a week paid the basic bills.
However it was not just any bread. What I learnt from Laurel Robertson, a neighbor, was two lessons: how to make the venerable Flemish "Desem" bread, and what an astounding difference it makes to bake the loaves in a brick oven. The Desem bread is also a story of rebirth. Desem is a bread researched and developed in Belgium after World War Two to meet the demand for a healthier diet, a "brown" bread, the European equivalent of the fashionable but imported "brown" rice. Besides utilizing the whole grain or "brown" flour, this bread was made out of a thoroughly fermented dough using the ambient microorganisms of the flour itself as the leavening agents. The starter dough was called "Desem." The return to the age-old practice of natural fermentation put this bread on the map. At last, here was the real thing, truly a staff of life dating back millennia. I knew that this "new age" bread was popular both in Europe and now on the east coast of the U.S., so it promised to be an easy sell here too, but not unless it was baked in the right oven.
"Health" breads tend to get overly ponderous, if not downright stodgy, but the Desem bread even with health credentials enough to sink a ship became dark, delectable, and simply irresistible when baked in a brick oven.
Natural fermentation has been key to the paradigm shift that has sparked the new bread revolution in North America today, no matter what flours are used. I do enjoy a lighter loaf of "artisan" bread occasionally, but it has to be a mature loaf thoroughly fermented by a natural starter, and of course baked in the inimitable heat of a brick oven. This book contains heaps of my enthusiasm for the success stories of those true baker-artisans who have gotten their many ducks in a row, and who are now successful family and community nurturers. Without nurture I do not think that there can be nutrition, since nutrients, numbers, and other heady stuff can lack heart whereas nurture, being from the heart, is the more powerful mover and shaker. And yet, although it was the freshly ground wheat-flour Flemish Desem bread that energized me in the early 1980s to create the appropriate ovens to bake in, and that became a cornerstone of my vegetarian diet, the Desem remains a bread with relatively narrow appeal. Now, nearly twenty years later, it has become obvious that the nurturing qualities of the artisan process, even when directed toward production of perhaps less nutritional breads, are what is energizing this new generation of successful bakers.
A warning, though: Any obvious success in the marketplace using commercial flours will not go unchallenged, for even as I write this, the so-called "artisan" breads that are energetically being produced by big industry could soon swamp the market in a flood of look-a-likes at throwaway prices. These breads will be skillfully compromised to fit the established supermarket system of food distribution—precisely that which promotes the civic poverty I bemoan.
There is such a growing need to encourage the family and community baker/nurturer, that rather than delay the process any further with lectures on whole grain to unwilling ears (good advice thrust down unwilling throats), I have endorsed the course that this book has taken, including some concessions toward commercial flours. I feel certain that whole grain breads have a secure place in the scheme of things now, and will have a more important role in the future than their industrialized cousins, but the train has already left the station. How could anyone not make better choices given a good command of the facts?
Thanks to the meticulous research by my dauntless partner in this book, I for one have seen some of my wildest intuitions about my cherished Desem bread substantiated by solid science, much to everyone’s relief. Armed with these facts, I feel much more secure now about the how and why of the bread I bake, and even about the who I bake it for. I hope that the information in this book will seem as digestible and attractive as the breads now appearing on our tables. I hope too that this valuable knowledge and the skills to implement it will add substantially to our capacity to serve our families, friends, and communities.