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.