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SWEET SUCCESS IN PAISLEY
by Julie Fitzgerald
Due North Magazine - November / December 2006

 

The scent of sweet cloves and cinnamon pulls me in the door and instantly I am revisited by all the memories of every Christmas I've ever lived. I am standing inside the Big Dipper Bakery Cafe in Paisley but in my mind the log is crackling in the hearth and the chestnuts are cracking open in the oven. I'm certain the effect is subliminal because my hosts seem blissfully unaware of the effect their bakery has on me as we exchange greetings. It's the promise of baked goods that has led me here but in the end I find much more than just another good bread story. I find two people deeply committed to happiness - their own, and their customers.

Glen Charban and Sharon Card's story starts somewhere in the wilds of Toronto and continues, full tilt, in Paisley where they run a baker specializing in artisinal bread and Belgian chocolates. At this time of year they are elbow deep in dried fruits, chocolate and exotic spices from the orient: the cinnamon and cloves were not just in my imagination after all! Like bakers of old preparing for the Christmas pageantry, Glen and Sharon are preparing for their busiest season employing the same time-honoured traditions. Much in the same manner as their predecessors, they choose all their ingredients personally, ensuring along the way that they gather the freshest butter, the highest grade of untreated flour and the freshest nuts and fruits on the market.

Their Christmas offering begins with two "fruit" breads, the Christollen and the Hutzelbrot. Christollen (literally, Christ's stollen) is what Glen and Sharon call their white Christmas cake. It has origins in 15th century Dresden where the recipes appear variously as "flour, yeast and water" or "flour, outs and water" - not a delectable treat by anyone's stretch of the imagination. Church doctrine of the time prohibited the use of butter or milk during the Advent season, citing such extravagances as being too rich for the season preceding the holy birth. With presumptive acumen, Pope Nicolas IV saw an opportunity for fundraising: after some polite discussions with the local nobility, he conceded that bakes could indeed employ dairy products if they would contribute a small tithe to the Pope's charities. Glen's recipe, thankfully, has no resemblance to the pre-butter Papal decree: it is rich with butter, heavy with fruit and is a testament to the sumptuousness of the season.

The Hutzlebrot is another seasonal offering which Glen and Sharon call their black Christmas cake. Traditionally, the Hutzlebrot was made with a few dried pears (hutzlrig, which gives the bread it's name, and it's sweetness), but there too Glen has refined his own variation by adding an abundance of prunes, figs, apples and raisins to the required pears. Nuts are added as a welcome crunch, and added protein. Unlike the Christollen, however, this recipe boasts no butter or sugar - just healthy, nutrient-packed ingredients which make the bread an ideal treat for taking on the trails. It lasts forever, is easy to carry - and carries you home with the strength of its goodness. (Think Frodo, Think lembas, with dried fruit, and you'll get an idea of it's lasting power.) The Hutzlebrot will only improve with age, becoming mellower and richer at the same time, as the flavours marry.

Their line of Belgian chocolates and caramels is an enticing counterpoint to the cakes of the season. "Chocolate making came to be my default", Glen says, "but it was a happy accident." He explains how he had been trained as a baker and was in fact co-owner of Grainfields in Toronto, in the 1980s. When it was sold as a corporation in 1989 one of the conditions was that Glen refrain from setting up as a competing baker within Ontario, for 5 years. As he cast about for a new metier which could give him the same joy and sense of fulfillment as baking, he turned almost as a natural reaction to making specialty chocolates and was an immediate success at the St. Lawrence Market. But, it is said, every success takes its toll and Glen and Sharon began to long for a respite from the fast pace of big city living. their eyes and hearts alighted on Paisley.

For a time they had a shop-front bakery specializing in artisinal breads. They wanted to stay small and stay local but the Fates seemed to have other plans for them. Such a focused market required a broader customer base than they had anticipated. Increasingly, they were making a name for themselves at the Collingwood Farmer's Market and specialty shows such as the CNE, One-of-a-Kind in Toronto, Sunfest in London and "Fair November" in Guelph. Sometimes it's hard to argue with destiny: the very nature of their craft was pulling them back into the bigger centres.

The customers they had gained in Paisley in the short time their shop-front was open were predictably disappointed to be losing their source of unique bread. Glen uses sourdough in all his bread recipes, not so much as a leavening agent but because it provides such a distinctive flavour - to which one can become very dependent. Facing the prospect of hacing to close the shop-front in order to return itinerantly to the bigger cities to earn their bread and butter, they were left with a dilemna: How to satisfy this craving that they had created? A stroke of genius illumined their path: why not start a Bread Club? Here's how the Bread Club works: "hard core bread lovers" can place their orders by e-mail indicating how many loaves are required. Once a month, Glen and Sharon bake the required number of loaves and inform their customers of a date and time of pick-up. Their bread freezes very well and the bonus is that everybody wins.

It is said that everything old is new again and it occurs to me that even Glen and Sharon's bread "club" is a tribute to the ancient ways of baking. In the days of old, British and European bakers would make bread in response to local demand. They would take orders from local customers and twice a week would bake to fill those orders, therein maximising their labour and the fuel required to heat their ovens.

It occurs to me, too that both Glen and Sharon are doing exactly what they are meant to be doing: two old souls returning to their original calling. They are so comfortable with their craft, that it is difficult to imagine them doing - or having ever done - anything else. They jest in a gentle self depreciating manner about their foibles; they find humour in their challenges and they remain absolutely certain that they are indeed in the right place and that they are doing what they love to do. Who can argue with sweet success?