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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.

Happy Monk Tidings - Dec. 16, 2020 - Happy Monk Blog: Time to Hang Up the Baker's Peel for 2020; Baker's Choice: Fruit Sourdough [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - Dec. 16, 2020 - Happy Monk Blog: Time to Hang Up the Baker's Peel for 2020; Baker's Choice: Fruit Sourdough [ See link in profile ] ...

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Salish Country Loaves tumbling out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven this morning. There are a few extras, so if you’re interested, I’ll be at Medicine Beach until 2pm today (Friday, Dec. 11)!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #coboven #Mildrith #Mildriththeoven #woodfiredovenbread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadporn #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderislands #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany

Salish Country Loaves tumbling out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven this morning. There are a few extras, so if you’re interested, I’ll be at Medicine Beach until 2pm today (Friday, Dec. 11)!
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#woodfired #woodfiredoven #coboven #Mildrith #Mildriththeoven #woodfiredovenbread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadporn #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderislands #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany
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Happy Monk Tidings - Dec. 11, 2020 - Baker's Choice this week: Fig and Fennel Loaf; Happy Monk Blog: Praise the Rain! [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - Dec. 11, 2020 - Baker's Choice this week: Fig and Fennel Loaf; Happy Monk Blog: Praise the Rain! [ See link in profile ] ...

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Volkornbrot casts a long shadow … getting bagged up for deliveries today. The aroma of 100% rye in the kitchen is otherworldly! I’m walking around in a trance.
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#volkornbrot #rye #ryebread #ryebreadlove #sourdough #sourdoughbread #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #woodfiredbread #coboven #bread #breadlove #baker #bbga #happymonkbaker #happymonkbaking #naturallyleavened #artisanbread #realbread #rusticbread #penderisland #southpenderisland

Volkornbrot casts a long shadow … getting bagged up for deliveries today. The aroma of 100% rye in the kitchen is otherworldly! I’m walking around in a trance.
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#volkornbrot #rye #ryebread #ryebreadlove #sourdough #sourdoughbread #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #woodfiredbread #coboven #bread #breadlove #baker #bbga #happymonkbaker #happymonkbaking #naturallyleavened #artisanbread #realbread #rusticbread #penderisland #southpenderisland
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See you in the morning, Mildrith!
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#woodfiredovens #woodfiredbread #woodfired #sourdoughbread #baker #bakersofinstagram #bakersoven #woodfiredovenlove #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southpenderisland #penderisland #penderislandbc

See you in the morning, Mildrith!
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#woodfiredovens #woodfiredbread #woodfired #sourdoughbread #baker #bakersofinstagram #bakersoven #woodfiredovenlove #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southpenderisland #penderisland #penderislandbc
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Happy Monk Tidings - Bread 🍞 and Blog 💻 - Baker's Choice: Volkornbrot - German Rye; Happy Monk Blog: The Good People of Pender - [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - Bread 🍞 and Blog 💻 - Baker's Choice: Volkornbrot - German Rye; Happy Monk Blog: The Good People of Pender - [ See link in profile ] ...

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Making this Olive Loaf is almost as delicious as eating it. Marinated Kalamata and Haldiki with zested lemons and spices. 
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#wildyeast #michaeljamesbakes #tivolirdbakery #naturallyleavened #artisanbread #realbread #rusticbread #woodfired #woodfiredbread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany

Making this Olive Loaf is almost as delicious as eating it. Marinated Kalamata and Haldiki with zested lemons and spices.
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#wildyeast #michaeljamesbakes #tivolirdbakery #naturallyleavened #artisanbread #realbread #rusticbread #woodfired #woodfiredbread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany
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Happy Monk Tidings - Baker's Choice: Olive Loaf and Happy Monk Blog: The Joys of Firewood - [ See link in Profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - Baker's Choice: Olive Loaf and Happy Monk Blog: The Joys of Firewood - [ See link in Profile ] ...

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Breadcrumbs
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#innomine #sourdough #sourdoughbread #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #bread #breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs
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#innomine #sourdough #sourdoughbread #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #bread #breadcrumbs
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Bread love 🍞 ❤️ 🍞 

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#countrybread #countryloaf #salishsourdough #sourdough #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #bread #breadlove #breadlabcollective #bbga #breadstagram #breadsofinstagram #artisanbread #baker #bakery #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #happymonkbaking #southpenderisland #southpender #penderisland #southerngulfislands

Bread love 🍞 ❤️ 🍞

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#countrybread #countryloaf #salishsourdough #sourdough #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #bread #breadlove #breadlabcollective #bbga #breadstagram #breadsofinstagram #artisanbread #baker #bakery #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #happymonkbaking #southpenderisland #southpender #penderisland #southerngulfislands
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Intense little Seed loaf!
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#seedbread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #bread #breadlove #breadlabcollective #breadstagram #breadsofinstagram #artisanbread #baker #bakery #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #happymonkbaking #southpenderisland #southpender #penderisland #southerngulfislands

Intense little Seed loaf!
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#seedbread #sourdough #sourdoughbread #sourdoughbaking #bread #breadlove #breadlabcollective #breadstagram #breadsofinstagram #artisanbread #baker #bakery #happymonkbaker #happymonkbakery #happymonkbaking #southpenderisland #southpender #penderisland #southerngulfislands
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Happy Monk Tidings 🍞 - This Week's Baker's Choice: Sprouted Kamut Loaf; Happy Monk Blog: To Autumn - [ See link in Profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings 🍞 - This Week's Baker's Choice: Sprouted Kamut Loaf; Happy Monk Blog: To Autumn - [ See link in Profile ] ...

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A hint of brotgewürz, bread spice. A mix of caraway, anise, fennel and coriander lifts this seedy Mountain Rye into a different realm.
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#brotgewürz #mountainrye #wholerye #ryebread #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderislands #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany

A hint of brotgewürz, bread spice. A mix of caraway, anise, fennel and coriander lifts this seedy Mountain Rye into a different realm.
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#brotgewürz #mountainrye #wholerye #ryebread #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderislands #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany
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Happy Monk Tidings - Baker's Choice: Mountain Rye; Happy Monk Blog: Entangled Lives and the Election - [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings - Baker's Choice: Mountain Rye; Happy Monk Blog: Entangled Lives and the Election - [ See link in profile ] ...

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Tidings from the Happy Monk 🍞 - Baker's Choice: A Warming Cinnamon Raisin Loaf; Happy Monk Blog: The Isle of Apples ... [ See Link in Profile ]

Tidings from the Happy Monk 🍞 - Baker's Choice: A Warming Cinnamon Raisin Loaf; Happy Monk Blog: The Isle of Apples ... [ See Link in Profile ] ...

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Happy Monk Tidings, October 14 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Russian Rye; This week's Blog: A New Look at the Noble Miche [ See link in profile ]

Happy Monk Tidings, October 14 🍞 - Baker's Choice: Russian Rye; This week's Blog: A New Look at the Noble Miche [ See link in profile ] ...

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REMINDER: The Happy Monk is on a Bread Break! 😎 See you all in two weeks! Also: read back issues of the Happy Monk Blog [ See link in Profile ]

REMINDER: The Happy Monk is on a Bread Break! 😎 See you all in two weeks! Also: read back issues of the Happy Monk Blog [ See link in Profile ] ...

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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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