It was an honour and it was unexpected. I was invited some weeks ago to be an “artist” in the South Pender Island Easter Art Walk, a long-standing tradition in this part of the world. Painters, jewellers, fabric artists and craftspeople open their studios to show their work to Islanders and visitors.
The roads outside the studios are thick with cars, balloons, flags and, this year, yellow umbrellas. There is a small buzz in the community, an annual cultural signpost that partly defines our life here on Pender.
There has never been a baker in the art walk. Some of the organizers were intrigued, I imagine, with the birth of Mildrith, the cob oven, the post and beam log structure that provides her shelter, and the wood-fired breads of the Happy Monk Baking Company. I was humbled to be asked.
A Longstanding Pender Island Tradition
The Art Walk was on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, noon to five. It was just Jennifer, me and Mildrith minding the visitors. There was not a spare moment to stop, take stock of what was happening, take a picture … or count the numbers of visitors. It was impossible to speak with everyone, even with Jennifer helping.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, though there was a steady chill coming up off the ocean. Mildrith crackled and sang with a good fire. We had her doors open and people approached with their hands open to warm them. They stood with their backsides to the fire to receive her warmth. Her benediction.
In the early part of the day, we set the mood, playing Gregorian Chant for Easter service on an outside speaker. When it was time for the pizza to come out, we switched to African — King Sunny Adé and his African Beats, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Only a handful of people opted for the pizza. I had prepped for 36 pizzas, including toppings for three varieties. Most, I think, were trying to stay on schedule for visiting other artist studios. Others proclaimed they had just eaten lunch, or were saving themselves for big Easter suppers. Honestly, it would have been a stretch to bake 36 pizzas and answer questions at the same time.
There were, however, 24 loaves of bread for sale ‒ a country sourdough and whole wheat rye loaf. They sold quickly. One visitor even bought a heavily scorched loaf I was hoarding in the house, thinking no one would want it.
“My neighbours told me I must try your bread,” she said, after I showed her the loaf. “This is fine!”
I have no way of knowing how many visitors came. It must have been well over one hundred. There were groups of cyclists, motorcyclists and lots of strollers visiting the studios along Gowlland Point Road. Old friends, new friends, weekend visitors, even an island celebrity.
The Difference Mildrith Makes
It was touching, the enthusiasm for the oven and wood-fired bread. Many were curious how Mildrith was built, where her name came from, where the materials came from, who was involved in the construction. Some asked about my interest in bread, where the “recipes” came from. A few looked at the large stack of chopped wood and wondered why work so hard to bake bread with fire, rather than a professional bread oven.
I think they knew what my answer would be.
There is something primal about fire and the cooking of food that we remember from our past, the collective unconscious. We know how food is transformed when it is cooked, and we first understood this when fire was the only heat source. It is with us today in the barbecue, the camp and beach fire. We have electric ovens and stoves, but there is something special, something moving and exciting cooking with fire.
I love watching a fire, the way the flames undulate, the cracks and hisses, the way it moves against the curved walls of the oven. The heat coming out of the oven is gripping, comforting. You see it, smell it, feel it hear it. And you see how it transforms raw dough into delicious bread with deep brown crusts and beautiful texture. It is the way we make our bread that is different, not the taste or texture, the crust or crumb.
“You are in your element, David,” a friend said.
Guess what Jen and I had for dinner after it wall over? Pizza! There were nearly 30 dough balls, toppings for some incredible pies and still lots of heat in Mildrith. She was hot to trot! And when dinner was over, we baked most of the remaining dough for crusty rolls and burger buns. Gotta make the most of the falling heat of a wood-fired oven! Mildrith was happy for the work.
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
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