'Look what I made': The rise of sourdough, right here in river city

For traditional bakers, it all starts with a starter and time. For people who enjoy eating good bread, the options are endless. Traditional bread-making in Edmonton is seeing great growth.

Edmonton's bread scene expanding, thanks to bakers who adhere to tradition

For Edmonton baker Yvan Chartrand of Bonjour Bakery, the secret to a top-quality bread or baguette is "time, time, time." (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Edmonton's burgeoning restaurant scene has collected plenty of accolades over the last few years, and the growing appetite for quality has led to opportunities for food artisans working outside the confines of eateries.

The rise of bakeries creating high-quality breads, especially naturally leavened sourdoughs, is proof.

It should come as no surprise that the differences between a two-hour factory/grocery store sourdough and top-quality breads are plentiful, but for Yvan Chartrand of Bonjour Bakery, it comes down to one thing.

"It's basically time, time, time," Chartrand said. "That's the secret. Our bread takes three days from start to finish, and we give the yeast time to do its job — which is to add taste, ferment and change the natural sugars in the wheat or rye into something that's beautiful, tasty and nutritious."

Chartrand's starter is about 20 years old, which is a young base for the seasoned baker. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

A well-made sourdough has an intoxicating smell, a deep and delicious flavour and a texture that just cannot be replicated if corners are cut. A lot of the credit for those qualities goes to the sourdough starter — a simple mixture of water and flour, coupled with the indispensable factor of time.

To a professional baker, the starter can become very personal.

Jennifer Stang of La Boule in Old Strathcona said hers, affectionately named Hank, is a valuable member of the team.

"Everything that is bread dough-based here has some Hank in it," Stang said. "He adds a little personality to everything we do. Even our croissants have Hank in them."

Stang took her passion for traditional breads and started Old Strathcona's popular La Boule Patisserie & Bakery. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Hank has travelled around with Stang for more than six years, from his birthplace at the Edmonton Petroleum Club to Stang's home to La Boule. Little bits of Hank have been shared over the years but Stang insists he is different as soon as he leaves her care.

"A starter is about terroir. The ratio of water to flour, what you feed it, how often you feed it, what your water is like, what your air is like."

Those factors all make each starter unique. "I'd be curious to make the same loaf of bread with someone else's piece of Hank and see what the differences are. Because I'm sure there would be a difference," Stang said.

Almost all of the bread-based products at La Boule contain some Hank, the name Jennifer Stang has given her six-year-old sourdough starter. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Most bakers would be heartbroken to lose a starter they've nurtured for years but Chartrand left behind a 150-year-old starter in Hokkaido, Japan, where he owned two bakeries before moving back to Edmonton in 2007.

He said the different flour and water here, along with wild yeasts in the air, would have completely changed the starter's profile. "I may go back someday and try to bring some back, but our current starter is very nice and is all Alberta."

Bread basics

Most of Bonjour Bakery's grains come from a farm near Morinville, Alta., and are ground in-house on the bakery's stone mill. Working with very fresh flour can be more difficult but Chartrand said it's worth it for the flavour.

At Bonjour Bakery, all the grains come from a local farm and are ground in-house. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

While you simply can't make a great sourdough without a great starter, Todd Barraclough of Brio Bakery said a truly delicious loaf is also about what's not in the bread.

"I use a purely basic flour, water, and salt formula, which would be pretty rare for a grocery store," Barraclough said. "They need longevity, so they add preservatives and additives to give it shelf life, which I can totally understand. However, by making my bread in a traditional way that's been done for years and years, it allows me to create really nice textures and flavours."

Todd Barraclough's Brio Bakery grew from a farmers market stall. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Barraclough has seen demand for traditionally made breads expand rapidly in recent years, which is great news for his new bricks-and-mortar store in the Oliver Exchange. The neighbourhood was quick to embrace his sourdoughs and baguettes but neither of those are the obvious favourite so far.

"I think I could only make cheddar — I could take everything else off the shelf and just make 200 kilos of cheddar bread and I'm pretty sure they would all sell. But everything sells because everyone looks for one or two different things. The prairie loaf, which is our traditional sourdough, will be everyone's default — one they try first, then they'll come back and explore and try a few different ones."

Barraclough honed his craft at the esteemed San Francisco Bread Institute. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Barraclough has come a long way from when he started baking traditional breads at home and people in the neighbourhood began asking to purchase his tasty loaves.

After furthering his education at the esteemed San Francisco Bread Institute, his passion evolved to a farmers market stall, and eventually the opening of Brio Bakery's full retail location.

Don't slice too soon

The temptation to slice into a great loaf of bread while it's still warm is strong. But Stang said the bread needs time to cool and set. A better plan for satisfying a craving for warm bread is to slice the cooled loaf, wrap some in foil and warm it in the oven.

Stang also said breads like sourdoughs and rye often benefit from sitting for up to three days to develop peak flavour. "It almost bothers me to sell our freshly baked rye because it really needs 24 hours to sit there and to come into its own, and the next day it's so much better than it was the day before."

Brio Bakery specializes in the modern California style of sourdough bread. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

A love and passion for bread is definitely essential for all three bakers. You wouldn't get up at 3 a.m. if you didn't love what you do, but Stang summed it up best.

"It's amazing — it starts out as just a pile of water and flour and there's nothing to it. Then it becomes this living, breathing, growing thing, and by the end of it you're just like, 'Look what I made!'

"It was nothing yesterday and now it's this beautiful loaf of bread. It's a really amazing journey to watch that, and to sit there in front of the oven and watch it rise and break open and colour. It's like my favourite show."


Phil Wilson is the host of Fast Food, a food writer, podcast host and regular contributor to CBC. He has a never-ending passion for food, which he shares on his website, baconhound.com, and in magazines, on radio and TV, and CBC Edmonton's annual best restaurants list.