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Some of the province's top eateries are paying as much attention to their bread program as sourcing quality ingredients

Edmonton’s Biera is a forward-thinking eatery. The restaurant‘s executive chef, Christine Sandford, says her bread-making process is ‘a real labour of love.’

Bread service in Alberta restaurants certainly isn't what it used to be and that's something we should be thankful for. Long gone are the days of walking into a contemporary eatery in Alberta and being greeted by a basket of miniature bread rolls, previously par-baked and overcooked in an oven. Crusty on the outside and thoroughly disappointing on the inside.

You know the bread basket I'm talking about.

These days, the chefs at some of our province's best restaurants, such as Edmonton's Bar Bricco or Clementine or Calgary's Pigeonhole and Bridgette Bar, take just as much time and care in establishing their bread program as they do sourcing those other sustainable, localized ingredients we've become so accustomed to enjoying.

Christine Sandford is the executive chef of Edmonton's Biera, a forward-thinking eatery inside Blind Enthusiasm Brewery. Ms. Sandford's menu is a far cry from the typical brewpub fare one might expect. Sunflower-seed and malted rye risotto, with appropriately salty mimolette cheese; smoked potatoes nestled into a flavour-packed whey clam sauce, dusted with malt-vinegar powder.

The true showstopper, though? Slices of Biera's sourdough served with an addicting house-made cultured butter and whipped lardo that uses spent grains from the brewery's production, which took the chef and her baker months to perfect.

Flammkuchen is one of the menu items at Biera. The eatery’s menu is a far cry from the typical brewpub fare one might expect.

"It took many trial and errors," explains Ms. Sandford on her bread-making process. "After months of practice, once I felt I had it under control, I taught it to my baker, who then had to understand the process herself. … It's a three-day process from start to finish, so it's a real labour of love."

Sandford fell in love with the art of bread-making and working with sourdough starters several years ago while working in Belgium, first at the Michelin-starred In De Wulf and then De Superette. There, she spent time in the kitchen with an American expat baker, Sarah Lemke, who was known for her work with sourdough and wood-fired baking.

"I had never trained as a baker [before working in Belgium], so it was here that I took what I saw and just started practising. That meant a lot of failed loaves, late nights and early mornings," she says, laughing.

Her sourdough loaves leave little room for criticism. A firm crust encases moderately dense crumb with just enough tang to make one appreciate the flavour that comes from the combination of the brewery's spent grains and starter. Recently, the chef and her baker have fine-tuned a recipe for focaccia, which involves overnight fermentation, high-quality olive oil and plenty of salt.

"If you are lucky to have a baker, or someone who can make the bread daily, that's how you really develop consistency and learn how to fix any issues," Ms. Sandford says. "You kind of have to become one with the dough."

Diners are pictured at Edmonton’s Biera, located inside Blind Enthusiasm Brewery.

In Calgary, chef Jamie Harling of Deane House is also known for his involved bread program in his kitchen. Unlike Ms. Sandford, who worked alongside a baker at first, Mr. Harling became inspired after taking a trip with his wife to San Francisco in 2014 and proceeded to teach himself with the help of any reading materials he could get his hands on.

His sourdough boules and baguettes are made from a base of Alberta red-fife wheat and a starter that he developed at Rouge restaurant the same year that he visited San Francisco. Two years later, he took the starter along when he moved to his new position as the executive chef of the revamped Deane House, which opened in the fall of 2016.

"Consistency and follow-through is so important when you decide to implement a bread program in your kitchen," Mr. Harling says. "Sourdough is very finicky and it is really important to maintain temperature and exact time when making bread."

As with Ms. Sandford, he agrees that having a dedicated staff member who can devote their mornings to the floury regimen results in successful sourdough. As far as evolution of his bread program goes, Mr. Harling has been experimenting with larger sizes of loaves, some weighing close to 2 ½ kilograms, as larger sourdough loaves can stay fresher and longer – when uncut, of course.

While diners might not be able to see the amount of time and effort that goes into something as seemingly approachable as a serving of sliced bread and butter, at restaurants such as Biera and Deane House, you can certainly taste it from the first bite to your last.