In an instant world where preservative-loaded quick bake loaves have damaged the reputation of bread, the makers of ‘real’ artisan bread are standing up for its heritage, luxurious taste and health benefits.

WORDS Clare van Rensburg PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Mare

On a crisp spring morning, dawn finds Antoine Salnelle toiling in the bakery behind his café, La Patisserie, in George. He lovingly packs hundreds of freshly baked loaves for the Wild Oats Community Farmers’ Market. The sun has barely touched the edge of the eastern sky as his three bakers leave after a night of intense labour.

The intoxicating warm smell of fresh bread hangs in the cool air. The buttery aroma of croissants adds a sweet top note and the deep heady scent of rye forms the base of a delicious bread perfume.

Baking artisan bread is a labour of love, the product of which is seductive, luxurious and inspiring. Wicker baskets filled with squat, scored sourdough loaves, long baguettes and seed covered sticks sit waiting to be devoured. These loaves were made to be slathered with the best farm butter and Fynbos honey. They were fashioned to be broken with friends and family, savoured with rounds of baked Camembert, syrupy green figs and glasses of Pinotage. One bite of the rough crunchy crust and the soft warm chewy centre of the sourdough becomes a clarion call to wholesome indulgence.

Handmade loaves originating from the best Garden Route bakeries find their origin some 100km west, on the rolling wheat fields of the Overberg platteland. Sustainable GM-free wheat is nurtured in African soil and ripened by the sun. Local co-operatives provide grain that is slowly and gently stone ground at Eureka Mills outside Heidelberg. The flour produced by this natural grinding process yields a whole flour, which retains all the healthy wheat germ, fibre, oils, vitamins and enzymes. It is coarser in texture than conventional flour, boasts a higher nutrient content and bakes superior bread.

The ‘goodness of the flour’ is a religious concept to Nico Steyn, miller and manager at Eureka Mills. “My biggest challenge is to educate people about the pride we have in our ingredient. Our farmers produce a premium product using practices that respect the land, employ crop rotation and minimise the use of chemical fertilisers,” says Nico.

Their mill grinding process is unique. “The grindstone generates little heat compared to commercial mills and none of the nutrients in the flour are degraded. In contrast, commercial flours are ground using 14 sets of steel rollers and leave the flour overheated and often stripped of nutrients.

“I want people to enjoy bread again. Our business is not just about money; it’s about creating a change in food culture.” He is excited by the current transformation in South African food values. “People are talking enthusiastically about bread again. Bread has become more than a vehicle for cheap margarine and processed cheese. Beautifully baked artisan bread stands alone,” says Nico.

This sentiment is shared by a select number of Garden Route bakers. Michael Amos from Delish in Heidelberg bakes exclusively using Eureka flour. “Commercial flours are stripped of nutrients, laden with artificial ingredients, flour enhancers and preservatives.” He bakes ciabatta, sourdough baguettes and herb loaves in a wood fired oven and is particular about quality. “As a nation, bread is our staple; we are eating too much bad bread. We should rather spend more on quality ingredients and eat less, or find a good bakery.” Michael’s philosophy is simple: “If I look at a packet and I can’t pronounce the ingredients, I won’t eat it, I won’t use it. We need to get back to the source of our food!”

Friends and business partners Jane Hops and Florence Chabanel from Le Fournil in Plettenberg Bay oversee the baking of a range of traditional loaves. Their ‘Boule Miche’ is made with local draft beer instead of water. The ‘Miche d’antan’ sourdough takes 24 hours to develop, allowing the full flavour of the bread to mature, ensuring longevity.

The country loaf is fermented using a natural sourdough, which the duo refined over the last 10 years from fermented apples. Their variety of rye breads use natural sourdough starters. At Le Fournil, baking centres on patience and respect. “In this fast food and disposable era,” says Jane, “these are qualities that have been lost in food. To us, artisanal represents an era where food was appreciated and savoured, took time to make and was eaten together around a table.” She laments the fact that this sounds old fashioned, but the use of additives and preservatives in commercially baked products has been linked to allergies and intolerances. Jane says these problems are often absent in their traditional methods of baking.

Claire and Antoine Salnelle of La Patisserie are equally obsessed by the quality of their ‘real’ bread. Baking artisan loaves is an intensively laborious process, explains French chef Antoine. “It takes at least a full day to bake a single loaf of bread.”

True French bread, he explains, consists of only four ingredients: water, yeast, flour and salt. The time honoured baking technique requires pre-fermentation of the dough overnight. Mixing is done by hand, the dough is divided into loaves, rested, then shaped in French linen to improve the flavour. Individual loaves are proved, developed and eventually baked. “Everything is done by hand. We are not pushing buttons on machines and setting timers here. We work through the night and with time. I learned to sleep standing up.”

Handmade bread focuses on the quality of ingredients, particularly the baker’s own sourdough starters. These microscopic communities of bacteria and yeasts are an essential component of truly amazing bread. And the best bakers nurture them like children. Antoine handles his humble looking sourdough starter with reverence. He has lovingly protected and fed it for 12 years. It is the cornerstone of La Patisserie. His wife, Claire, says it even has to be brought to France on holidays with the family as he trusts no one with its care.

Small producers like the Salnelles often struggle to make their businesses profitable in an industrialised era. “This business is not making millions. I can cut corners and make the loaves in two or three hours but it wouldn’t taste the same and I wouldn’t be able to stand over that product.” So the family keeps their business small. “We monitor the quality and enjoy our lives. I get to see my children grow up and ensure that they are well fed, and our employees are able to make a good living.”

Authentic bread baking requires monitoring a multitude of variables, from the quality of the flour and salt to the ambient temperature, humidity and the amount of yeast used. “There are no shortcuts, you have to keep the yeast happy. The baker must constantly adapt to the weather and monitor the quality of the dough. “For us the most difficult thing is to keep the bread the same. There is not one batch exactly the same as another.” However, one factor that remains constant is that the bread is healthy. “We work the dough slowly, the flour is not warmed up and the nutrient content is maintained. We respect our ingredients and try to ensure that all the goodness of the flour makes its way onto the plate,” says Antoine.

Garden Route artisan bread pioneer and chef Markus Färbinger of Île de Païn in Knysna reiterates this sentiment: “The best chef or baker can only be a good shepherd to the best natural ingredients. Our core priority is health,” he says. Île de Païn’s temporary pop-up style shop in Thesen Harbour Town, The Summer Shack, serves exclusively fresh, local foods prepared to order. They use Eureka’s stone ground flour to produce a crisp nutty baguette, a bold Companio and their speciality Vollkorn bread.

Île de Païn was the first artisan wood fired oven bakery in South Africa. Markus imported his skills from Austria where his family have been bakers for 300 years. The wood fire oven is an essential component of their bakery. “Fire tempers and transforms the loaf. It bakes the bread more beautifully than a conventional electrical oven. The colour, taste and texture are optimised, bread is less dehydrated and better risen. The baker is more engaged with and in tune with the bread.

“This type of baking takes real skill, focus, attention and an instinct for what maximises the energetic value of food. Bread like this is not expensive, it is valuable for one’s nourishment – body, mind and soul.”

Markus loves the simplicity of handmade bread, its honesty and humility. “If done well, it has potential to be as nourishing a food as it was thousands of years ago when the Egyptians first realised the fermentation of grain unlocks its energetic potential. Bread like ours has survived 6000 years and will continue to do so despite our shifting understanding of what ‘value’ is.” Markus and his business partner, Liezie Mulder, are currently rebuilding their bakery and restaurant in Thesen Harbour Town and expect their doors to open this summer (2016).

La Patisserie: 26 Courtenay Street, George 044 874 7899
Ile de pain: Thesen Harbour Town
Le Fournil de Plett: The Courtyard, Lookout Centre, Main Road, Plettenberg Bay
Eureka Mills: