Bread and Meate!
Buy a candlesticke?
Buy any prunes?
Buy a washing ball?
In 18th Century London, bread lovers knew when their favourite loaves or buns were ready for purchase. Street vendors – ringing their bells, clanging their pots – would shout each other down with their musical cries. Bread and Meate! Bread and Meate! Or One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns. Families would descend – coins in hand, taste buds at the ready.
Dimitri Tzotzos doesn’t have a street bell or a pot for clanging. But, when he and Paul MacEwen have a new batch of their Slow Rise Bakery bread ready for eating, the people know. Island neighbours wave at the van as it heads to the Gabriola Village Food Market. Others are dashing to the shelves to grab their favourite loaf before it runs out. Apricot Ginger? Olive & Rosemary? Hazelnut Cranberry Whole Wheat?
The Summer Farmers’ Market sets off a scone frenzy: Citrus, Cranberry and White Chocolate? Asiago Cheese and Onion? “This year has been fantastic,” says Tzotzos. “Most Saturdays in August, we have been doing 500 scones for the market.”
Tzotzos and his wife Christy used to work as biologists for Fisheries and Oceans in Nanaimo. They enjoyed the work, but “when the kids came along, the amount of field work required for the job just became not as desirable.” Around eight years ago, Tzotzos met MacEwen through their kids and learned that Paul and his wife Michelle were looking to expand the bakery that they had been running out of their kitchen for a couple of years. “Back then, they were baking for the Farmer’s Market.”
Tzotzos didn’t have any serious baking experience, but was eager to learn from Paul, a trained chef. “I learned from him and the two of us improved our skills over the years. We’re still learning.” When a house came up for sale beside the MacEwens, Tzotzos and his family bought in. They built the Slow Rise Bakery on Paul’s property and now Tzotzos has “a 200 foot commute. It’s pretty nice!”
For both bakers, one of the greatest sources of learning has been around their signature tool: a hand-built, wood-fired oven. “We built the oven at the same time that we built the new bakery.”
Local architect Jay Friesen designed the building, while Victoria baker Cliff Leir – owner of Fol Epi bakery and a wood-fire oven expert – offered inspiration for their unique oven.
Tzotzos and MacEwen fire the oven the day before they use it. “We bake on residual heat. Today, we fired the oven between 8 and 11 o’clock, then we shut it down. Tomorrow morning, it will be around 550 degrees Fahrenheit and we’ll bake two batches of bread, about fifty at a time.”
The business partners use organic ingredients, sourced as close to home as they can find. “We hand-shape and score all the bread.” And how do they manage to create bread that is so crunchy on the outside and so moist inside? “The wood oven has a continually falling heat. We steam the bread when we put it in, which allows the bread to continue to rise in the oven. And then we vent – we open up the damper to let out steam – which helps to create a nice, thin crunchy crust.”
“On a Saturday for the Market,” Tzotzos explains, “we start with the kinds of breads that can handle a higher temperature: focaccia, ciabatta. We progress through the different breads as the oven drops. We do the breads with more sugar in it later, like the Apricot Ginger. That way, the apricots get blended into the dough and the crust will get darker much more quickly.”
To get the bread out on time, the Slow Rise duo must keep early baker hours. To make bread destined for Gabriola or Nanaimo grocery stores, Tzotzos and MacEwen get up at 4 in the morning. For the Farmers’ Market, they start at 9:30 pm and work through the night. “But, when we bake in the morning, we are done work before lunch. That gives us a good chunk of the day to spend with family.”
This balance between family and working life is important to Tzotzos. “We could make more and sell in more places, but we want to keep things balanced with the rest of our lives.”
What advice would Tzotzos offer to others who are thinking of building artisanal businesses?
1. “If you are doing really well with one or two products, stick with those for awhile until you get things figured out on the business side. That’s better than trying too many things and not being happy with the end results.”
2. “Create something that you like. I’ve had customers ask me why we don’t make rye with caraway seeds. I don’t like caraway. It’s my prerogative to make things I like. That’s one of the perks of having your own business.”
3. “Talk to your customers. It’s a chance to get instant feedback.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
London Cries: A Muffin Man
Paul Sandby. 1759