Sometimes you just have to go to a conference to feel like a professional.
That’s why I recently found myself in a downtown Montreal hotel surrounded by over 150 food bloggers – a handful of which were men and the majority under-40 females who could simultaneously post on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter faster than I can crack an egg.
When I got my copy of Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs by Toronto author Signe Langford I judged it, yes judged it, by its cover. Cute quirky name, I thought, guessing this was yet another cookbook on eating local with a beautifully art-directed cover.
Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.
Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes is the largest grower in Canada, with some 700 acres devoted to the adobe-coloured roots, annually harvesting a whopping 14 million pounds. Right smack in their busiest harvest of the year, head farmer, visionary and CEO Peter VanBerlo Sr. stood at the ready to tour us around his acreage, armed with an amplifier, microphone and 16 years of sweet potato farming experience.
Our bus had travelled from Mississauga to the sandy loam of Norfolk county, one of the most diverse agricultural areas in Ontario. Tall and lanky, VanBerlo stood roadside motioning us to park beside one of his sprawling sweet potato fields. Armed with smartphone cameras, pens and paper, our mostly-female group got off the bus slightly dazed and disoriented. City folk, we stumbled an unsteady course through the field, negotiating our way over burrowed trenches and uprooted debris.
Suddenly VanBerlo shouted “Look there!” and pointed frantically at one of his custom engineered digger/harvesters off in the distance. It looked like a travelling assembly line, crowded with over a dozen seasonal workers busily sorting, shaking and tossing an incoming sea of the pinky-red sweet potatoes.
“These workers have been with me for 29 years,”said a satisfied VanBerlo. He paused politely as we let out a collective sigh of approval. “I must be doing something right.”
VanBerlo and his sons Nick and Peter Jr. have teamed up to take the kinks out of sweet potato farming. It’s a fussy, temperamental root wrapped in a thin, delicate skin that abhors the cold and demands gentle treatment. Traditional farm machinery wasn’t up to the job so the VanBerlos designed their own harvesters, and in 2006 established a state-of-the-art facility.
After our romp through the fields, VanBerlo Sr. took us into this gargantuan packing, curing and storage facility to watch employees wash, sort, bag or box the spuds before undergoing their four to seven day curing process.
“Basically we fool these potatoes into thinking it’s summer and time to get growing again,” explained VanBerlo with a twinkle in his eye. “We put them in a hot, humid 85 degree (Fahrenheit) room and their skins thicken and the starches convert into sugars.” Once fully cured, sweet potatoes are stored for up to three months in his computer-controlled facilities that automatically shut off the curing process and turn on cold storage in well-ventilated, 55 degree F rooms that are stacked high with crates from ground to ceiling. It’s massive.
Curing not only makes sweet potatoes taste better, but it helps promote longer storage. Van Berlo says his sweet potatoes can store for 12 months but once they’re moved out of storage, shelf-life is reduced to a couple of weeks.
At home, store your sweet spuds in a dark, cool cupboard rather than the fridge. In fact, give them more TLC than you might confer on regular potatoes for if sweet potatoes are dropped or punched around, their sweet interiors will quickly bruise and decay.
When asked about the sweet potato-yam confusion among produce retailers, VanBerlo just laughed and said, “If Sobeys asks for yams, I give ’em yams.” But that’s an inside joke between all of us sweet potato experts. (Real yams don’t grow in North America and look very different: they are white-fleshed, long starch tubers with rough scaly skins.)
Berlo’s Best sweet potato farm bears testimony to the resilience and innovation of Simcoe’s former tobacco farmers. It’s a one-stop-shop for growing, harvesting and packaging a capricious root from the American south.
Fresh ginger is the magic of this soup. Peel it and grate with a microplane for best results. If you’ve got a spice grinder, cinnamon is always at its peak when freshly ground.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
3 lbs (1.5 kg) medium sweet potatoes (about 5), peeled and cut into half-inch (1 cm) dice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup milk or cream
In a large pot, heat oil and cook the chopped onion at medium low for 5 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Add ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add stock, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Remove soup from heat and allow to cool. Use a handheld immersion blender or puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Gently reheat and whisk in milk.
It’s August and I’m dipping fingers and bread into a bowl of freshly made pesto. The colour shimmers emerald green and licorice notes of sweet basil jump into my nostrils, the garlic-tinged oil making a smooth slide down my throat.
I want to eat it by the spoonful, but instead rush to store it before the colour and flavor are ruined by oxidization. So off it goes, portioned into small, glass jars covered by a thick layer of oil, lidded and refrigerated. I will slather it on warm toast, piling on sliced garden tomatoes and crisp bacon to make daily BLTs to be consumed with lascivious abandon. A teaspoon or two will find its way into homemade salad dressings, more will be drizzled over grilled shrimp and sometimes I’ll float a coin-sized island of it in the middle of a creamy cold cucumber soup or smear it on crostini with grilled veggies.
By day two of Artisan Bread Baking Level III, I had a hunch: The cards just weren’t stacked in my team’s favour. Sure, we looked the part.Team 3 wore white chef’s coats buttoned to the collar with crisp, starched aprons secured at the waist. We clutched the same roll of formula-printouts in our hands as we entered the production facility. Just as the others, we plopped down our pens, smartphones and water bottles on our workbench and had access to the same high tech mixers and ovens. But there was no doubt about it: Team 3 lacked a certain, shall I say, je ne sais quoi.
Didier tried to be diplomatic but I know he knew what I knew, even before I knew it.
It was called experience.
The pros in our class knew exactly how to operate the second they stepped into the spotless bakery. But for us rookies, it was our first swing up at the bat in the big leagues.
Worse still, the real bakers knew that time was of the essence. They circled around the large room and took a mental log of where all the important stuff lived, like tubs and cylinders used to scale ingredients or hold fermenting dough. They instantly sourced out the Essential Four (flour, water, yeast and salt) and understood that all the water had to be cycled through a digital cooler then laboriously calibrated with a probe thermometer. From the corner of my eye, I saw a flurry of activity, bakers racing by our workbench wielding tall, plastic stacks of containers, pulling bins-on-wheels full of flour and figuring out which scales worked and which didn’t.
But my team was just too busy standing still, staring at each other’s nametags and politely pointing at the pile of formulas and wondering which of us would lead our naïve flock.
It was Chef Jesus, of course.
But how would I possibly address this tall, broad-shouldered teammate who stood by my side, yet towered above me? Should I pronounce the name embroidered on his chef’s coat like Sunday school or offer up a Spanishy “Hey Seuss? When I mangled out the latter, a cringe swept over the Texan’s mug then Jesus Lugo calmly inhaled, looked me straight in the eye and said dead-pan, “That’s right, Madeleine.”
From then on, I knew our team had an inkling of a chance. Not only was Chef Jesus Lugo experienced, but an extremely patient man who just happened to be built like a Mack truck. A community college instructor from El Paso, Texas, Jesus took the bull by the horns and picked up (no, levitated) a 20-kilo pail full of poolish and deftly poured it into the VMI Phebus mixer near our workbench.
Meanwhile, Claudia Rezende from Sao Paolo was scaling flour, reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, bouncing kid-like on her tiptoes in order to see the digital numbers flashing in front to her. She was giddy with joy to be standing in this facility in South San Francisco. Like I, she’d booked a room at a nearby airport motel and was titillated to be honing professional skills. But after less than a minute at the scale, Claudia stamped her foot angrily and swore something completely unsterile in Portuguese. One huge scoop of flour had just tipped the scale and the digital readout had gone blank.
Bread is baked by weight not volume and bakers follow formulas, not recipes. On day two of the course, we would bake four different breads: semolina durum crowns, rustic filone, spelt bread and 100 % whole grain bread. Every bread formula was designed to produce 25-40 kilos of dough (enough to cover the surface of a bath tub like a big, fluffy pillow) and would bake off into 50-75 loaves.
Everything was weighed.
On average, every one of Didier’s formulas was based on 10 kilos of flour. I’ve watched Toronto bakers slash open humungous 10-kilo-bags of flour mix, dump the entire contents into a mammoth mixer, pour in litres of water by the pitcher-full then turn on the mixers’ timer and walk away.
Not us. At SFBI we were “in production” in a refined, complex, scientific and artisanal way. Thus, the semolina durum crowns we mixed up on Day Two required 10 kilos of hard, white bread flour but our job was to meticulously scale (baker-speak for weigh out) this flour into a large, plastic rectangular bin, haul and dump it into a mixing bowl the size of a jumbo exercise ball, then add two (not one!) pre-ferments: a whole wheat durum sponge and a durum semolina poolish that had been prepared the day before and left to ferment from sundown to sunrise.
“The pre-ferment!” shouted out Didier in the classroom the day before, his pitch just shrill enough to wake anyone snoozing in the back. “This is our secret tool. We can add something, something so fantastic to the final dough with a pre-ferment. What do you think that is?” he asked, his tone rising on the last syllable and left hanging in the air. He stared at us expectantly for a long while until he couldn’t stand it anymore and teased up the air above us, pointing and waving his magic marker frantically.
“Uh, uh, more fermentation?” suggested someone as if risen out of a coma.
“Yes, so….?” he prodded and waited, the room growing loud with silence until he sang out “Flavor my friends, flaaaaaavorrrr!!!” he droned with religious fervor.
I am a happy baker but a very reluctant scientist. Certain that I could pump up one of my greatest passions with some technical muscle, I recently enrolled in the five-day Artisan III Advanced Bread course offered at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
I chose the course somewhat illogically. I wanted a challenge and knew that most of the scientific baking terms outlined in day one of the curriculum were an utter mystery to my blonde brain: whether it was interpretative flour terminology like ash content or falling number or fermenting fundamentals like knowing your acetic acid from your lactic, the truth was it would all come in handy if I ever wanted to get totally serious about bread and open a bakery – which I don’t.
But I like to dream that I might… and even our instructor, certified Master Baker Didier Rosada was prone to talking at length about romance and passion as any fine, French born and trained professional might when lapsing into a reverie about all things gastronomique.
Bread, despite its lowly origins and simple ingredients, had captivated 18 adult students enough to willingly sit behind cramped little desks in a fluorescent-lit-classroom for six long hours on that first day before we even came within a nose of inhaling the toasty, rich aromas of blistery crusts baking in the eight-deck, 200-loaf- capacity behemoth oven downstairs.
We came from all corners of the world, we students of flour, water, yeast and salt, with a dozen different accents among us. Every so often, the instructor would speak of “yeast going dormant” or “dough conditioners” and questions in all different accents would pop up like mushrooms making for a broken telephone of misunderstanding interpreted in South African, New Zealand, Italian, Japanese or Brazilan-accented English.
Two bakery owners came from the far reaches of Johannesburg and Auckland to assess the week’s training, considering whether it was worth the expense to ship their staff to San Francisco for a week or two of bread school. Another two students, both recent San Francisco city college baking program grads, came for post-grad detailing while I belonged to the ‘serious home bakers’ faction which included a mother of teens from Sao Paolo, Brazil and a French history professor from Oklahoma. An exclusive Utah grocery chain sent two employees to finesse their ciabatta and baguette skills while Urth Caffé of Los Angeles dispatched two of their executive chefs.
Big dollars were riding on many of the bread brains in the room and our leader, Didier often rolled his eyes upward in obeisance to the food gods as he rolled his r’s dramatically and proclaimed in his thick, French accent the defining hallmark of the course, “Production!” which is industry-speak for — well, baking.
Enter the contradiction. We were enrolled to learn artisanal techniques in an industrial, high tech environment. The institute is situated under the same roof as TMB Baking, a distributor of baking equipment from around the globe. Imagine an airport hangar divided into three separate bakeries (two used as bakery/classrooms, the other a commercial off-site bakery for SFBI’s two,
downtown retail stores) beside an equally vast area housing bakery equipment stock. I liked to linger outside our second floor classroom, perch on the balcony and take in an eagle eyes’ view of the high-energy production facilities below.
“Only 20 % of baking in the USA is artisanal, “declared Didier on our first day, explaining that the remaining 80 percent is of the more commercial variety, namely pan loaves and bun production. Think baguette versus Wonderbread, ciabatta versus Kaiser rolls. Artisanal is based on traditional, Old World techniques compared to high quantity, fast and industrial modern bread baking. Yet, enter the word “production” and we are talking about large-scale baking of old school recipes.
After five hours of classroom science on the first day of the program, I was chomping at the bit to get my artisanal hands into flour and start production. Didier pointed at me and four other students in the same row of desks and declared with his usual flourish: “You five are team Number 3!”
He then scribbled a haze of weights, team numbers and formulas on the white board and suddenly it was time to get out from under our school desks and into the production lab . I detected a certain hop and vigor in everyone’s descent down the stairs. In the next hour, we would prepare vats of rye and spelt polish, durum sponge and whole wheat levain that would ferment and bubble all night long until our return for Day Two.