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A Primal Connection: Wood-Fired Sourdough

For the poet and mystic in us, building an oven, gathering the wood, tending the fire and baking in this way connects us experientially with one of our oldest civilized rituals. “Remembering” our past … helps us to momentarily touch base with our deeper selves and awaken briefly to our place in the broader web of the biosphere that supports and sustains all life.

— Alan Scott, 1936-2009, oven builder, baking traditionalist

The virtues of Mildrith are no secret to readers of these pages. She’s the wood-fired oven behind the Happy Monk Baking Company. But many — bakers and customers alike — are a little skeptical about my preference for wood fire rather than a conventional electric oven to bake my bread.

Baker’s hours are long and hard enough! Rising in the dead of night to bake can’t be avoided. So why add extra hours and expense, ordering firewood, stacking it, chopping it, setting the fire and tending it to get the oven to baking temperature. Wouldn’t it be easier to just switch on a deck oven and twist the dial to 450ºF?

Of course it would.

Indulgence

It’s true I’m indulging myself, baking with Mildrith. I enjoy handling the wood and firing the oven. I love all the steps. I love keeping a close eye on the temperature, raking out the coals, sweeping the hearth floor, then closing the oven for a while to let the surface temperatures equalize.

Loading the bread is panic! Fitting 10 or 11 loaves without losing too much heat means working fast and efficiently. There can be no distractions as you flour the peel, dump the dough from the proofing basket, score it, open the door, shoot the peel inside, slide the dough in place, mark a spot for the next load of dough, shut the door. Repeat. Then, when it’s all loaded, sealing off the oven with a heat plug draped with a wet towel to inject a little steam inside the baking chamber.

Waves of Radiant Wood-Fired Heat

And there is the supreme pleasure of opening the oven 20 minutes later to see those loaves fully puffed up and browned, the waves of heat carrying the delicious aroma of baked bread. No heating elements, no convection fans humming away, just a bold radiant heat that you’ve patiently built up over several hours.

Those loaves may need a few more minutes to finish. They may need to be moved around to prevent scorching or to find more caramelization of the crust. So you leave them for a few more minutes while you line up the dough baskets for the next oven load.

Mildrith can do three to four loads on one firing. As a wood-fired oven, she’s turning out to be pretty efficient.

“Wood-fired” is The Happy Monk aesthetic. To me, there is a continuous line between wild-yeasted sourdough and baking in a clay oven, heated by a roaring fire. It is a primal connection. It is the way bread was made for centuries. It is the staff of life, made of grain harvested from the fields, milled into flour, mixed with water and leaven and baked with fire. Bread is central in all cultures and has been made the same way, everywhere. Flour, water, leaven, salt and fire. It is part of the human experience.

The Ancient Connection

Delicious, wild-yeasted bread can indeed come from an electric oven. It may look different. It will probably taste the same as a wood-fired loaf. But eating a wood-fired loaf is a different experience … unquantifiable, important. I’ve spoken with many bakers who use electric ovens. Many of them harbour a desire to build a clay or masonry oven at home to make their own bread. They know that fire may not make better bread, but they understand the ancient connection, and that makes all the difference to me.

Fry’s Bakery, Wildfire Bakery, and Fol Epi ‒ all in Victoria ‒ use wood-fired ovens, and as a bread enthusiast, I have become spoiled with the choices. These companies were part of my inspiration for starting the Happy Monk Baking Company here on Pender Island.

There is nothing quite like watching these massive ovens firing up, heat blazing across the bakery. Or seeing dozens of beautiful loaves being pulled from the oven on long peels, baked with radiant heat. These are masonry ovens that will stay hot for days and weeks. These are loaves that are connected to the distant past, the Indian tandoor, the brick ovens of Pompei, the clay bread ovens of the Quebec settlers.

I am still learning the ways of Mildrith, how she holds her heat, how she likes to be tended. I am hungry for knowledge about using my oven to make bread in that ancient connection. And I couldn’t be more pleased to be heading in that direction.

First look at the last load of bread. The pan has an old towel and water to provide steam, while the bread rises.

Moonset and high tide, South Pender Island at 3:50 a.m. 
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 #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #clayoven #clayovenbaking #coboven #cobovenbaking #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery

Moonset and high tide, South Pender Island at 3:50 a.m.
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #clayoven #clayovenbaking #coboven #cobovenbaking #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery
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Happy Monk Tidings - July 21, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Bird Seed Bread; Blog: Rye Bread: The Agony and the Ecstasy [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - July 21, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Bird Seed Bread; Blog: Rye Bread: The Agony and the Ecstasy [ See link in profile ] ...

25 1
In the early light of dawn, Mildrith oven-springs sourdough, caramelizes crusts gold and brown and leaves heavenly smells as evidence. Inside her hot clay dome, 12 boules of Salish Sourdough are on the final stage of their journey. Behold the steam rising out of the chimney!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #clayoven #clayovenbakery #clayovenbread #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery

In the early light of dawn, Mildrith oven-springs sourdough, caramelizes crusts gold and brown and leaves heavenly smells as evidence. Inside her hot clay dome, 12 boules of Salish Sourdough are on the final stage of their journey. Behold the steam rising out of the chimney!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #clayoven #clayovenbakery #clayovenbread #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery
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65 1
Happy Monk Tidings - July 14, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice this week: Rye and Spelt Sourdough; Blog: Pleasure and Worry in the Summer Heat; Gratitude for Pender Island Fire Rescue; Happy Monk Search-Ability [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - July 14, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice this week: Rye and Spelt Sourdough; Blog: Pleasure and Worry in the Summer Heat; Gratitude for Pender Island Fire Rescue; Happy Monk Search-Ability [ See link in profile ] ...

33 2
Happy Monk Tidings - July 7, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Sourdough Sandwich Loaf; Blog Redux: Aunty Betty's "Brown Bread"; [ See newsletter link in Profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - July 7, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Sourdough Sandwich Loaf; Blog Redux: Aunty Betty's "Brown Bread"; [ See newsletter link in Profile ] ...

26 1
Happy Monk Tidings - June 30, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Spelt and Honey Loaf; Blog: These Waters, This World Around Me - [ See Link in Profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - June 30, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Spelt and Honey Loaf; Blog: These Waters, This World Around Me - [ See Link in Profile ] ...

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Happy Monk Tidings - June 23, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Deli Rye Bread; Blog: Summer Stars; and Who invented No-Knead? [ See link in profile ]

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Happy Bloomsday from the Happy Monk - June 16, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: An Earthy Olive Loaf; Blog Redux: The Terroir or Wine and Wheat; A Letter from Carrie and Leighton; [ See link in profile ]

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Cinnamon-Raisin loaves, they get it on! Can’t keep their hands off each other when they’re a little too close in the oven. Monkey business!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #cinnamonraisin #cinnamonraisinbread #cinnamonraisinsourdough #breadsex #breadporn #showusyourfuckedloaves #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakery #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #bakersandspice #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery

Cinnamon-Raisin loaves, they get it on! Can’t keep their hands off each other when they’re a little too close in the oven. Monkey business!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredbaking #woodfiredbread #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #cinnamonraisin #cinnamonraisinbread #cinnamonraisinsourdough #breadsex #breadporn #showusyourfuckedloaves #breadmaking #breadbaking #breadlove #bread #bakery #bakersofinstagram #bakerslife #bakersandspice #penderisland #southpenderisland #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbc #happymonk #happymonkbakingcompany #happymonkbakery
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Happy Monk Tidings - June 9, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Cinnamon Raisin Sourdough; Blog: Chasing the Perfect Loaf - [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - June 9, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Cinnamon Raisin Sourdough; Blog: Chasing the Perfect Loaf - [ See link in profile ] ...

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Happy Monk Tidings - June 4, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Metchosin Wheat and Honey Pan Loaf; Happy Monk Favourite: Salish Sourdough; Blog: Gratitude and the Joy of Chopping Wood - [See Link in Profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - June 4, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Metchosin Wheat and Honey Pan Loaf; Happy Monk Favourite: Salish Sourdough; Blog: Gratitude and the Joy of Chopping Wood - [See Link in Profile ] ...

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Look what I found in the back of the wood-fired oven last Friday morning. A mighty Seed Feast from last week, no longer so mighty, burned to a crisp. Knew I was one loaf short, but no idea where it went. Mystery solved. The ravens will appreciate it ... it’ll need a hammer to break it up!

Look what I found in the back of the wood-fired oven last Friday morning. A mighty Seed Feast from last week, no longer so mighty, burned to a crisp. Knew I was one loaf short, but no idea where it went. Mystery solved. The ravens will appreciate it ... it’ll need a hammer to break it up! ...

47 3
Happy Monk Tidings - May 19, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Double Fermented Oat Bread; Blog: Dreams of Bread; Introducing a New Way to Order Happy Monk Bread - [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - May 19, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Double Fermented Oat Bread; Blog: Dreams of Bread; Introducing a New Way to Order Happy Monk Bread - [ See link in profile ] ...

36 3
Happy Monk Tidings - May 12, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Rye and Currant Sourdough; Happy Monk Blog: No-Knead Bread Revisited [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - May 12, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Rye and Currant Sourdough; Happy Monk Blog: No-Knead Bread Revisited [ See link in profile ] ...

38 0
Happy Monk Tidings - May 5, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Whole Wheat and Spelt Pan Loaf; Blog: This Bread You Eat, This Poem You Digest - [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - May 5, 2021 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Whole Wheat and Spelt Pan Loaf; Blog: This Bread You Eat, This Poem You Digest - [ See link in profile ] ...

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Happy Monk Tidings - April 28, 2021 🍞 - Happy Monk Blog Redux: Life in small-town Burgundy: The French Factor; Bread of the Week: Baker's Choice, Purple Barley Bread, PLUS return of the mighty Seed Feast [ See Link in Profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - April 28, 2021 🍞 - Happy Monk Blog Redux: Life in small-town Burgundy: The French Factor; Bread of the Week: Baker's Choice, Purple Barley Bread, PLUS return of the mighty Seed Feast [ See Link in Profile ] ...

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Happy Monk Tidings - April 21, 2021 🍞 – Happy Monk Blog: Read about one of my greatest bread teachers: “A Bread Teacher With No Recipe” Also: This week’s Baker’s Choice: Danish Black Rye Bread.
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[ See link in Profile ]
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#teachers #breadteachers #bread #breadlove #breadlife #norecipe #happymonkbaking #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #penderisland #southpenderisland

Happy Monk Tidings - April 21, 2021 🍞 – Happy Monk Blog: Read about one of my greatest bread teachers: “A Bread Teacher With No Recipe” Also: This week’s Baker’s Choice: Danish Black Rye Bread.
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[ See link in Profile ]
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#teachers #breadteachers #bread #breadlove #breadlife #norecipe #happymonkbaking #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #penderisland #southpenderisland
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G&T and HT - C’est necessaire after a long day and night at the Happy Monk Baking Company.
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#ginandtonic #gin #G&T #BoundaryPass #SouthPender #SouthPenderIsland #HappyMonkBakery #HappyMonkBaking #HappyMonkBaker #cestnecessaire #cestnécessaire #cestnecessaire😍

G&T and HT - C’est necessaire after a long day and night at the Happy Monk Baking Company.
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#ginandtonic #gin #G&T #BoundaryPass #SouthPender #SouthPenderIsland #HappyMonkBakery #HappyMonkBaking #HappyMonkBaker #cestnecessaire #cestnécessaire #cestnecessaire😍
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2 thoughts on “A Primal Connection: Wood-Fired Sourdough

  1. I can soooo relate to the primal energies and connection with fire and ‘old’ ways …. it is truly fulfilling, real and the energy of all that coming through in the finished product. Simple …. yet truly amazing ……

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

    1. You are so welcome, Les, and thank you for the feedback. There is nothing more mesmerizing than watching the flames in a roaring fire, feeling the heat coming off it. Harnessing that heat by using it to cook food is an amazing thing. I don’t think anyone forgets this. It’s written in the genes.

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