A team of Canadians is going to Europe to face off against the U.S., Russia and nine other countries in a battle where international pride — and a golden loaf — are on the line.
It's the first time Canada has qualified for the World Cup of Baking, or Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, held every four years in France.
The country's hopes hinge on the culinary skills of Alan Dumonceaux and James Holehouse, instructors in the baking program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, and Marcus Mariathas, a master baker at Ace Bakery in Mississauga.
"We've been practising non-stop for the last six months," says Holehouse. "And we have lots of secrets, secret recipes that we've been working on. We're using a lot of Canadian products that we're showcasing."
Holehouse is responsible for the most daunting test of the competition, an artistic creation, 1.3 metres in height, depicting a popular Canadian sport. Just what it will be is top secret. Bakers vying to be the best in the world closely guard their ingredients, techniques, and even what they plan to create to catch the jury's eyes.
All that Holehouse will say is it's going to be really, really difficult to pull off.
"Bread dough brings a whole new level of challenge, because you have to bake the pieces. So the bread contracts and warps as it's baking. So it's very hard to make pieces fit together perfectly."
No 'crazy ingredients'
Dumonceaux leads the team in another compulsory category, Viennoiserie and savoury bakery, which is a fancy way of saying Viennese bread and sandwiches. He won't say what he's putting in those sandwiches, but guarantees it will be carefully considered.
"You don't want to get too crazy in the ingredients that you're using, because they may be a turn-off to some people. Like, in past years people have used sardines in product. Well, not everybody loves sardines."
Aiming for the best baguette
Mariathas rounds out the team in the baguette and bread of the world category. "Artisan breads are a passion for me," says the longtime baker. "I know we make the best baguette in North America, so I wanted to prove it to the world that we can make the best baguette in the world."
The Mississauga baker practises 24 to 36 hours each weekend and flies to Edmonton monthly to work with the rest of the team.
"We work very well together," says Mariathas. "We give opinion to each other, we give criticism to each other and make sure that we are at the top of the level. When you have a competition you need good teammates. I think I do have very good teammates."
The entire team, which includes coaches from Edmonton and Montreal, leaves for France on Jan. 29, which gives them one week to practise and experiment with the European ingredients they're required to use. They'll be supplied with French butter and flour, which have different qualities from what they are used to. But Canadian ingredients will also play a key role.
"I'm very proud of the unique Canadian products," says Holehouse. "And I think it will give us a competitive edge just for the unique textures and flavours that we're able to bring to the competition."
Improving the art of baking
The Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie opens in Paris on Feb. 5, with the first four teams competing the following day. Team Canada begins its competition on the evening of Feb. 6 when they will have two hours to prepare for the big event the following morning.
The gruelling day of competition begins at 5 a.m., with the Canadians showcasing their skills alongside teams from China, France and Turkey, in front of a live audience and television cameras. They'll have eight hours to bake various varieties of bread and to create that large artistic creation.
"Nobody wants to go there and have a bad day. You want to go there and present yourself well and show that, yeah, we do have great baking skills in Canada," Dumonceaux says.
The event was founded in 1992 by French baker Christian Vabret, who wanted to help promote and improve the quality of baking worldwide. Over the years it has grown to include qualifying events around the world.
Canada earned its place in the competition after scoring top points at a contest in Argentina in June.
At the last event, four years ago, Japan earned the top prize.