I was just a little girl, perched on a tall yellow vinyl stool.
My Baba was making her famous tomato-mayonnaise-and-iceberg -lettuce sandwiches. A piece of the white sliced bread fell to the floor. Baba picked it up and kissed it, matter-of-factly, and then put it aside.
Bread is sacred. Even Wonderbread.
As I got older, I saw that other rituals attested to bread’s holy place in our lives. Every Sunday, right after church, we went to Rideau Bakery, an Ottawa institution run by Jews from Ukraine. There’s really not much that can compare to their soft, fragrant rye bread. Once home, that bread was piled on a plate, the butter next to it, no matter what was being served nor how starchy the meal already was.
Not only is bread sacred, it must accompany every meal.
In every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve embarked on a steady, patient, sometimes years-long search for the perfect bread.
In Vancouver, this was no simple task. I soon discovered that decent rye bread does not exist in Vancouver. Moreover, the neighbourhoods I lived in had mostly Asian grocers, where an obsession with exquisite varieties of greens – bok choy, sui choy, pea shoots, mustard cabbage, mustard greens, gai lan and watercress – far outweighed the attention given to bread.
I traveled miles to find good bread. It took two buses and a four-block walk to get to the Swiss Bakery, a place I discovered because it was near Applause Video, one of the best video rental shops in Canada. I soon became addicted to the obscurely named Pipka II bread (there existed no Pipka I or III), a loaf of sourdough rye goodness with a solid crust and a pliable interior. But it must also be known that the best sourdough baguette in the city could be found there, too. And so, rain or shine (frankly, it was usually rain), I found myself traveling to the Swiss Bakery on a bi-weekly basis.
Came the day the Swiss Bakery was closed and shuttered, no sign to say what had happened. I stood there, in the pouring rain, dumbfounded. I went to Applause Video and rented several episodes of I Love Lucy. There was no bread with dinner that night, nor for breakfast the next day.
Months later, I found myself bicycling down a treeless street of warehouses not far from my home. Vancouver, being an odd mix of industrial and domestic architecture, was always thus providing me with severe vistas and long, blatant strips of road. I stopped suddenly. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, on 3rd Ave., not four blocks from my house, was the relocated Swiss Bakery.
I went in, of course. I demanded to know what had happened. I spoke with the owner, a benevolent Chinese man of small stature and large heart. The former owner, a German man enamoured of Swiss and French baking, had retired. After months of negotiation, this Chinese gentleman, enamoured of European delicacies, managed to buy the business, on the condition that the name – Swiss Bakery – be retained.
So there it all was, on wooden shelves and in pastry cases. My beloved Pipka II. Four kinds of baguette, including olive and rosemary, and chocolate-cherry (a new addition). Flaky, buttery croissant. And a bagful of pastries and breads, some with a Chinese inflection, I hadn’t ever tried, bestowed on me by the proud new proprieter, who refused payment. Just as I was leaving, some good church people came in to collect all the unsold baked goods, at no cost,to distribute to the poor.
I’ve lived in Toronto now for three years. I’ve been patient about the bread thing. I knew it would take time. Moreover, there has been much to savour as I search for The Perfect Bread. Portuguese corn bread and crusty white rolls, arriving fresh daily at every greengrocer and corner store in my ‘hood. Montreal bagels from Kensington Market. Future Bakery’s rye bread, not quite the caliber of my childhood rye, but adequate for toast. And Dufferin Grove Market’s wood-oven baked multi-grain, toothsome and hearty.
But none of these breads evoked a weekly or even bi-weekly allegiance. I was fickle, a serial lover.
One day at Dufferin Grove, they were all out of multi-grain, the only bread of theirs I like. I stood helplessly, looking around. There is another bread outlet at the market, I’d noticed the lineups, but rumour had it the loaves were $5 each and I have my limits.
And yet, desperation is a severe teacher. I had five dollars in my pocket. I’d just started my new job, and a steady salary plus the stress of a new workplace sent me to the bread lady’s booth. I looked listlessly at her bread. Perhaps sensing my trepidation, she sold me a loaf of her hearty multigrain at a discount, it being the last one there. The twinkle in her eye and the proud way she spoke of her bread reminded me of the Chinese baker, somehow. I took my loaf home.
I’ll give her five dollars, I’ll give her ten. Turns out her name is Allison Miller, and her bakery/catering business is called Alli’s. You can find her at St Lawrence Market, too. This bread (and she bakes many kinds) is moist and firm in all the right places. It contains a strong hit of molasses but it’s not overbearing. It lasts all week. It toasts well but it’s also great fresh, and slices easily for sandwiches. It is indeed hearty, and it is made with love.
Do you love bread?