There is nothing quite as intoxicating as the smell of freshly baked bread. Straight from the oven, every slice releasing its hypnotic fog to lead you astray. The perfect excuse to discard all guilt and heap on the farm butter. Although it’s all about comfort, deliciousness and euphoria, research also reveals that the smell of freshly baked bread may also make us kinder to strangers.
Findings of the University of Southern Brittany in France, published in the Journal of Social Psychology suggest that “certain smells trigger a positive mood that leads to a greater degree of altruism, or unconditional concern for the welfare of others.” Their experiments conducted in the vicinity of a bakery and then outside a clothing shop indicated that “in general, spontaneous help is offered more in areas where pleasant ambient smells are spread”.
This is certainly at the heart of the life-changing business of artisan baker Fritz Schoon at Schoon De Companje who started out as a quantity surveyor, working on construction sites where he observed that there was a general lack of nutrition for labourers.
His concerns, lead to an idea, which were soon channeled into a small business of on-site kiosks selling pap and stew. However, it was the huge consumption of half loaves — mostly unhealthy, mass-market bread, full of sugar and preservatives — that really got his attention and inspired him to set up his first bakery on his parent’s property in Stellenbosch.
Years on, trading bricks and mortar for dough, this entrepreneur not only makes some of the best bread in the country but now grows his own wheat, which is ground on site at his beautiful family ‘co-op’ Schoon De Companje, which incorporates an ice cream maker, local charcuterie and cheese deli, boutique wine and beer, and coffee bar.
It is, however, Schoon De Companje that is the ‘hearth’ and soul of this village and definitely my favourite spot for long lazy Saturday brunches on a weekend escape from the city. For Fritz it’s not only about freshness and the finest ingredients, it’s all about the “time and intent”. On a recent visit, he told me about his journey to baking and revealed how much passion and patience goes into making good, healthy bread.
What are your earliest memories of food? My mother is Greek but was born in South Africa and married my father, an Afrikaans boer-like lawyer. What I remember was her take on Afrikaans food. She did all the catering when his clients and friends came over. She had this serious love of food, real food. Obviously there was her Mediterranean-style but she had to make something that was presentable to the boere. You’d have my father’s input because my mother’s style is so way out, like left-brained, and my dad is the opposite. So he’d bring people over and she’d make her version of South African cooking. Jy weet, vleis, reis en aartappels kind of thing but in her way. So there was always a very interesting dynamic in the kitchen.
Any particular favourites? She used to make stews with kluitjies, you know, those dumplings. That was my absolute favourite.
Why did you choose baking? I was a quantity surveyor and worked on construction sites. The labourers would leave their homes at 5am and start a hard days’ labour at 7am. The guys, specifically the single guys, would not have access to food throughout the day. And so I urged the developer to set up a kiosk on site where workers had access to good pap and stew or a good loaf of bread or something to keep them going.
My idea was rejected but I still thought it was a good concept – it would be a great contribution but also it could make some money. So I started setting up kiosks on construction sites. I employed a lady and she’d be making pap and stew the whole day and the guys would have access to that and a half loaf. We moved so much bread through these kiosks so I decided to set up a bakery on my parents’ property. When that happened I started educating myself about yeast and fermentation, mixing and gluten. I discovered the artisan bakers of France and I just said to myself: ‘you know, that’s amazing.
That’s a person dedicated to one specific trade and baking throughout the night…’. That captivated me. I wanted to do an apprenticeship but obviously it’s not as easy as that. Firstly, you’ve got to speak French and you’ve got to have training there. You don’t just pitch up like you do in South Africa, which is the benefit of being here. In any country in Europe I would not be qualified to open a bakery at all. Then I read about Marcus Farbinger’s Il de Pain in Knysna. I pitched up at his door and said I’d work for free and I sold my car to prove that. I ended up working for him for two years and then moved to Stellenbosch. But the two years with him were life-changing. He’s an amazing mentor.
What is the secret to great bread? It’s time and intent, and ingredients. We’ve gone as far as to farm our own wheat. We found older varieties to be farmed in natural ways. I want to say organic because that is what it is but it’s not certified. Then we bring it into the bakery where we mill it fresh to get the most nutrients and flavour out of the wheat. That’s how serious we are about it. Most commercial flour loses all nutrients in the processing and there are so many chemicals added to it. It also ends up standing on the shelf so long before you use it, so it’s actually a dead product. It’s not only about ingredients, but also about ethics. The other question is time. So we don’t mix our doughs to get a lot of gluten structure and high volume. We’ll just blend the ingredients together and let the gluten structure form naturally. We fold the doughs by hand, which takes an extra day, but it pays us back in flavour. Tenfold.
Where are you growing the wheat? In the Free State there’s a farmer and in Prieska in the Northern Cape. We’ve just signed up with two farmers in Stellenbosch who are going to plant for us so that we can see if those older varietals work here. You see, the problem is they don’t yield so it’s got to be a farmer who is not in it only for the money. However, we do pay a premium. We pay as much as the farmer needs to make it possible.
On the topic of wheat, what about gluten intolerance? Obviously we study a lot about it and I’ve got my opinions about gluten where I don’t necessarily believe that it’s the intolerance to gluten, but the intolerance to the chemicals inside of it. There are about 30 ingredients in a standard commercial loaf of bread, which are not natural. So I don’t think it’s an intolerance to gluten, which has been with us for thousands of years. The first time a grain was mashed and connected with water, there was gluten. But the intolerance has started recently and I think our body’s are telling us that they’re not happy. So we just keep on preaching what we know. I’m preaching whole grains, freshly milled flour, natural fermentation. A guy came to me the other day and said he hasn’t eaten bread in 15 years, but now eats our bread on a daily basis without any affect on his health.
You’ve some important ‘pets’ to feed. Tell me about your ‘starter’ cultures and making bread? We ferment naturally, which is not as scary as it sounds. You have to get a local culture, a starter in your bakery, then monitor it and feed it. It’s like a small pet that’s really not that needy. You have to feed it daily or every second day and manage its temperature because yeast is very sensitive to temperature.
We add it to our breads to help them rise and get nice open crumbs. But it also contributes so much to the flavour. It’s about a two- to three-week process to get one starter. So you’ll just mix flour and water. In the old days, the Afrikaans people called it soetsuurdeeg. They used potatoes and a bit of sugar. I learned from Markus who’s a European so we just use rye flour and water.
You mix the two together and leave it out and that’ll attract some organisms and you’ll refresh it a couple of times until you see when it starts doubling in size, looking very healthy and not giving any bad flavours or aromas. To make bread that looks ‘almost’ like mine, you need a good cast iron pot, which most South African household have. We bake at very high temperatures in the wood-fired oven. We can start baking at 440 degC, you know, no problem.
You can create that wood-fired oven environment within a cast iron pot. We take a whole grain and a wheat flour base and you ferment it. It’s a two-day process. You’ll get the characteristics of a natural fermentation, the flavour, the structure, it’s all hand mixed. And then hydrate it very well so that you get that open, chewy crumb that you see from some ‘serious bakers’. And then we’ll load that into a cast iron pot that’s already pre-heated and we’ll get a beautiful open crumb, thick crust, dark bread from a normal home oven. With a good quality dough like this you can make a focaccia, small sticks, pizza base…you’ve got so many options.
NOW IT'S YOUR TURN:
COUNTRY LOAF – POTBROOD
Makes one big loaf
270g Highland Hard Red wholegrain flour
340g Fine Organic flour
515g of the starter
Starter: Mix the yeast and water together then add flour and salt to the bowl. Mix until smooth and then cover. Let the dough ferment for 5 hrs at 24 degC.
Final mix: After 5 hours dissolve the starter in the water. Add the flour and salt and mix until smooth, cover the dough and put it in the fridge for 30mins.
After 30mins fold and leave in the fridge for 2 hours.
After 2 hours give the dough another fold and cover, leave the dough in the fridge over night until the next morning.
Next morning take the dough out the fridge, fold the dough neatly and place in a round container with a clean lightly floured cloth. Leave the dough to rise to 1.5 times original size.
Pre-heat your oven to 260 degC with your pot in the oven.
Carefully take the pot out the oven and gently tip your dough into the pot. Score the top of the loaf, put the lid on and put the pot into the oven for 20mins.
After 20 mins take off the lid and lower your heat to 230 degC and bake for a further 20mins.
If you have a thermometer on hand place the end in the centre of the loaf. We are aiming for 98 degC.
Otherwise you can stick a knife in the centre, remove it slowly and inspect for any wet dough. If it comes out dry, it should be ready.
Once it has a deep golden colour carefully tip the bread out and place it on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
Have real farm butter on stand by.
Schoon De Companje
Tuesdays-Fridays 07:00-18:00/ Saturdays 08:00-18:00/ Sundays 08:00-13:30
Bird St & Church Street, Stellenbosch
Phone: 021 883 2187
This is an extract from ‘Cooked in South Africa’, an initiative of Wish Upon A Star, a non-profit fund-raising charity (Reg. No 2013/038478/08).
Cooked in South Africa is about memories and journeys around food and will be on sale in leading bookstores from mid-November with all profits from the sales going to children living with disability.
Photographs courtesy of Felix Seuffert and Cooked in South Africa