Canadians consume a lot of grain – more than 70 kilograms of wheat flour and other milled grain products per year – and we're one of the largest wheat exporters in the world. Athough it's fashionable to know the name of the farm where your vegetables were grown or your chickens were raised, not many people know where their flour comes from. The owners of a new bakery in Montreal, Automne Boulangerie, want to close that knowledge gap.
They are native Ontarian Seth Gabrielse (formerly chef of Labo Culinaire/Foodlab) and Quebecker Julien Roy, who won the 2013 apprentice baker category in France's prestigious Mondial du Pain. At Automne, their goal is to go back to bread basics, which means working with local grain farmers, using long fermentations and sticking to minimal ingredients.
Quality and provenance of grain is so important to their head baker, Marc-André Cyr, that he runs A Taste for Grain every year, a non-profit event celebrating Canadian grain and all the self-proclaimed "grain heads" who bring them to the table. This year's conference happens May 7 at McGill University and features speakers including American author and self-proclaimed flour ambassador Amy Halloran and Charles Létang, president of the Association des boulangers artisans du Québec.
In advance of the event, The Globe and Mail sat down with Gabrielse to find out why Montrealers are lining up out the door for their daily dose of local grain.
What separates Automne from other bakeries?
The fundamental difference is to have accountability. When Julien started talking to me about opening something, he was also very interested in that idea: where products come from and some accountability as to how they're produced and who's producing them.
Most bakers here in Montreal couldn't tell you the variety of wheat they use – is it one variety, 10 varieties? And so that aspect really interested us and became the whole philosophy behind Automne. It's the journey that's more engaging, the process. Everything that happens up until we get the grain is really important to us, because it's the story behind the bread that gets people to understand our products.
Is all your flour locally sourced?
About 98 per cent of the flour we use is from Quebec. We've actually found plenty of flour here; we just had to do the footwork. The crazy thing is, after having gone to all these farms, we've realized that it was the bakers that were the disconnect in this whole process. The farmers know each other. The millers know each other. It's the bakers who don't seem to care – they just want the same bag of flour they always get. Meeting all these farmers, we found that we could get our spelt from one guy and Walton wheat from another, there's barley flour, purple corn flour – and everyone's excited to work together.
It has this circular effect: The more we talk about specific local farms, the more bakeries will want to buy from them, the more they'll grow. Our end game at Automne is to mill our own fresh flour on site. A commercial bag of flour, for example, could be months old, so it's a totally new ball game. We want to be like a grain lab: learn, experiment and share.
What's your bread-making process?
In 90 per cent of the bread we make here, we use three ingredients: flour, water and salt. That's it. Julien uses liquid levain (which is a combination of flour and water) and he doesn't add any starter [yeast] except a bit in his baguettes and jack loaves. He favours long fermentations and refrigerates his dough for 48 to 72 hours. He also refreshes his levain with 28 degree C water which changes the dough's acidity. The result is a milder-flavoured bread with a cake-like texture.
Have you felt the gluten backlash at Automne?
I don't think it's a problem for us. The thing is, grocery-store bread – that white sliced bread – has something like 28 ingredients and one strain of flour, so you're talking a whole string of preservatives plus the processing of that wheat (they literally bleach flour to get it white) and then high amounts of yeast to get it to that texture really quickly … It's no wonder people aren't digesting it properly.
A few years ago, bakers were reporting a little slowing in business, but now it's bouncing back because it's brought the conversation around to people asking questions about the bread they're eating. Now, there's way more interest in different grain varieties such as spelt and kamut and rye. I think that's a really positive byproduct of the gluten scare: People are now talking about grain.
This interview has been condensed and edited.