The UPPER crust
Hilary Biller speaks to master baker Markus Färbinger about the dying art of loafing
An Austrian living in Knysna with a bakery/restaurant on Thesen Island. How did this happen?
I met my partner, Liezie Mulder, in the US during an artisan bread workshop. We shared the same vision and developed the idea of being Knysna's village bakery, now île de païn. We started to bake bread in our oven, which we built ourselves, making bread on trestles and mixing dough in washing buckets by hand.
You come from a long line of Austrian bread makers. Did bread-baking come naturally to you?
Yes, and no - since the '70s, bread-baking as an artisan's craft has deteriorated, even in Europe. Today, we have small counter-movements that prove the exception to the rule. So, what we had to do was re-invent old-fashioned, traditional bread-baking techniques, using natural flour, no conditioners or stabilisers and learn how to work a wood-fired oven. There's little or no information on how to do this in a professional manner. But, in the end, having "baker's blood" running through my veins helped a lot, as did Liezie's knowledge and enthusiasm.
What exactly is artisan bread-baking?
Literally translated, it means "to work with your hands". I believe there is a difference between a labourer who works with his or her hands and somebody who has dedicated themselves to a craft and honed it for many years.
Can one make an artisan loaf at home?
Absolutely. The ingredients, methodology and love can be applied anywhere.
The art of bread-making is an ancient tradition. Why has it all gone wrong?
It hasn't all gone wrong. It was a collective choice. A shift in consciousness has turned our attention towards "unreal" things. The customer wanted everything to be: a) always available, b) convenient, c) plentiful and d) cheap. But bold individuals will carve out a new path, despite the odds - we as consumers have to fight for what we want, go back to the basics, ask questions, and insist on knowing what's in our food. The greater the demand for good, clean and fair food, the more readily it will be available.
Bread made in the old tradition uses no more than five ingredients and a commercial loaf contains up to 20 different ingredients. Why is this?
Bread can use as little as three ingredients. The additional ingredients are there to create the illusion of more health and to make the bread "soft", with more colour and flavour.
Artisan bread is much more expensive than your everyday commercial loaf. Why?
We seem to appreciate value in "glamour" products but have little room in our wallet for "everyday" products. Good, honest bread is not expensive, it is valuable. What is expensive is buying "cheap" food that does not nourish you and may over time cause health issues.
What flour do you use?
We are constantly looking for new sources of flour and ingredients. We recently bought a small mill to start milling some flour for our most special loaves. The mill uses a stone-grinding process and mills its own wheat. It is vital that the germ of the wheat is present in the flour.
Why a wood-fired oven at île de païn?
A wood-fired oven gives bread a finish similar to how a wooden barrel gives a finish to wine. It produces a bake that is bold and flavoursome with deep, dark colour. When we built île de païn, we could not find a domestic oven that suited our needs and did not have the wherewithal to import a proper artisan oven, so we built the wood-fired oven.
Describe île de païn's selection of breads?
Our selection ranges from a crispy, nutty baguette to the big-holed and chewy ciabatta, from our original Companio to 100% rye and whole grain bread. We also make other speciality breads, which are only made on specific days, such as Pain au Levain (100% wheat sourdough bread), Desem (100% freshly milled, whole-wheat sourdough). We also make challah (the SA kitka), brioche and our viciously flaky croissants. It's a real skill to make flaky croissants with natural flour and farm butter. Then there are our breadsticks and the olive-laden Princi (an inspiration from a famous Milanese bakery).
You sell your bread at the Wild Oats Market in Sedgefield each Saturday morning. Why, when you have a busy bakery just down the road?
It is a social contribution to the Garden Route. Farmers' markets have a responsibility as they provide a choice to the consumer. It is up to the consumer to make use of them. It is the place where we started to sell our breads and we will continue as long as we can. We also have representation at the Harkerville Market between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. It is smaller, but it has a lot of personality. I also love speaking to the receivers of our bread. It's "face" time. Everyone can speak their mind, ask questions, be appalled at the price, or choose to ask why this bread has "value".
You are known as someone who readily shares your skills and have recently made a DVD about artisan bread-baking.
The DVD was a way Liezie and I could extend our reach. Local filmmaker Michael Chèze and writer Debbie Gunter agreed to embark on this creative process with little "script". The first DVD contains two short films. The first focuses on the quiet work of the bakers at night and the second shows how to make breads in the buzzing bakery. The second DVD, the actual "how to", guides the viewer on how to prepare an artisan bread dough and create four different variations from it. The DVD set comes with a recipe booklet.
- île de païn
Thesen Island, Knysna.
Tel: 044 302 5707
- The île de païn Bread DVD is available from the bakery or via www.iledepain.co.za