She used to be meticulous about not posting her picture anywhere, not on her vast bread baking websites, not on Instagram or Facebook. All we had were shots of her hand holding up a beautiful loaf of bread, with a hint of tattoos on her wrist and fingers.
And yet we felt Francis Olive’s presence through her written word, the bread she baked and photographed for her blogs. The posts conveyed a level of intimacy. She was a friend who beckoned you to try this bread formula, that it’s no big deal, and that you too can produce this beautiful artisan bread with the “uber thin and shattery crusts” and “lofty and light crumb.”
We didn’t need a picture of Francis Olive! But it still would have been nice to see what she looked like! In other words, we felt her passion and celebration of bread.
A tale of two bread journeys
The blog has been quiet for a few years now, but Francis thrives! This post is a longish tribute to one of my “bread teachers.” It covers much of my recent bread journey from being a serious home baker to becoming the Happy Monk Baker!
Francis’ posts were fun, funny, serious and revealing of herself and her bread journey. I read them earnestly and tried her recipes. I loved getting the notifications that her latest blog had just been posted. That old friend, telling you about her latest discovery, bubbling over with joy and excitement.
Encouraging. Friendly. ‘If I can do it, you can too,’ Francis seemed to say. ‘And you will! Let me be your guide.’
That was the spirit of her first blog post in April 2011 for the “Tartine Bread Experiment.” She aimed to work through all the formulas and recipes of Chad Robertson’s 2010 Tartine Bread book, a landmark for the sourdough bread movement.
A visionary baker
Robertson was the visionary baker who dreamed of his perfect loaf and spent more than a decade developing it. In the first few pages, he describes the creamy crumb, the crackling crust and the unparalleled flavour of his basic country bread. The dream, he said, was “not from real bread but from images — images of a time and a place when bread was the foundation of a meal and at the centre of daily life.” 1
And the bread Robertson created was the centre of his Tartine bakery in San Francisco’s Mission district. Every day around 5 p.m., people would line up to buy one of these legendary loaves just out of the oven. The latest reports are that the line-ups are still there, though Robertson has moved on to a much larger international baking empire.
Francis Olive, a resident of the Bay Area at the time, was likely one of those people in line. When she moved to Los Angeles, there wasn’t anything to compare with the riches at Tartine and other San Francisco bakery stops. And the bread bit her hard with inspiration.
Her move coincided with the publication of Robertson’s book, and she began her bread journey. “The Tartine Experiment” blog was her testament to that journey.
It could have been mine, too, truth be told, if I had been one of those early acolytes of Tartine bread standing in line at the corner of Guerrero and 18th Street in San Francisco. I had to wait for my move to Pender Island in 2011 and begin feeling around the sourdough world on my own before I discovered Robertson’s Tartine Bread.
The 24-page formula that launched a thousand bakers
The book’s centrepiece was a 24-page recipe for the Basic Country Bread in which Robertson outlines the method and technique for making the loaf. Master this, and you can make any of the other breads in this book, he promised.
The Country Bread formula 2 was a tantalizing description, but it set my nerves aflutter. I was afraid to make it for fear of failure; that I could never match the masterpieces pictured and described in the book.
My first attempt was a surprising success. My loaf had a beautiful open crumb, a crisp chestnut-coloured crust. The kitchen was filled with a heady aroma of freshly baked bread with a hint of something else. Was it chocolate?
“Ha! This is gonna be easy,” I thought. I was cocksure with my second attempt, and it fell flat. The loaf was better suited to the disc golf park than the dinner table. The next one was modestly better, and for a long while, that is what I produced: modest loaves.
Just what the doctor ordered
Then I discovered “The Tartine Bread Experiment.” It was just what the doctor ordered.
The author, Francis, was clearly on a similar bread journey. She was further along than me, but she’d already stared down similar issues. Francis’ posts were confident, chatty, charged with experience, informed by her successes AND flops. She laughed at herself. “I’m a mortal, like you,” she seemed to say. “We may never be saints like Chad, but we should have fun trying, shouldn’t we?” (These are my words, entirely).
There is nothing like finding a community of like-minded souls who share an obsession! I was smitten!
The blog posts were lavishly illustrated with photos, not just of Francis’ finished loaves but of her ingredients, different stages of the mix, her burgeoning starter, the rising dough, the shaped loaves just before going into the oven.
The finished loaves were exquisite! Beautifully caramelized crusts of browns and golds with the edges of the score mark lightly (sometimes heavily) charred. They were shiny and textured, the crumb holes pearlized and creamy.
Simplicity and beauty
Francis’ loaves were simple and beautiful. Artfully scored crusts, gorgeously coloured, yet rustic and inviting. You wanted one of those loaves still warm from the oven. They sliced with a spray of crust crumbs on the cutting board, and you wanted it slathered with good butter melting into the crumb. You wanted the aroma and the taste.
When Francis acquired a flour mill, a beautifully finished Komo Classic, she experimented with freshly milled flour, sifting and making whole grain loaves.
Here was another formula that set my heart aflutter. A 100% whole wheat loaf is not as straightforward as you’d imagine. The flour’s wheat germ and bran components prevent the oven lift and soft crumb that we expect with a basic white loaf. Sifting 3 may help with volume, but it’s still not the same.
Francis’ words were a challenge. I was inspired to try her loaf but not confident of success. A few days later, sure enough, I pulled another frisbee out of the oven.
“You are a total bread nerd!”
I reached out to her, and she got right back to me, asked for all the particulars, photos, baking notes, thoughts about my sourdough starter’s health. “Let’s figure this out.” We tried but could find no glaring problems.
Francis didn’t mince words, though. She told me I was a total bread nerd, referring to my detailed baking notes and the hand-wringing anxiety about my failed loaf.
She also said I NEEDED a flour mill and a set of bolting screens for sifting.
That message was like a permission slip from the teacher. I’d already been dreaming of a flour mill, but my mind couldn’t justify the expense. A few days later, I’d placed my order. I haven’t looked back yet!
We of her followers learned a few things about Francis Olive: her upbringing by “hippy parents,” her work as a chef, her love of music, Negroni cocktails (yes, please!) and her love of beautiful objects.
In 2014, “The Tartine Experiment” ended, and she launched a new blog, “Girl Meets Rye.” She’d been getting emails addressed to Chad Robertson, and some readers were confused the blog was his website.
A new blog, a new identity
The new blog continued on from “The Tartine Experiment.” It was a name change, but by now, she had branched out and begun offering recipes of her own, instead of ones from Tartine Bread. Her own take on digestive cookies (delicious!), for example, or Cacio Pepe bread, a bread expression of the classic Italian pasta dish.
“Girl Meets Rye” carried on intermittently for another four years, but her posts dwindled. Life circumstances, I assume. I don’t think she ever achieved her goal of working through every recipe in Tartine Bread, but after the long run over two blog sites, she’d moved on. Chad Robertson had been the inspiration, but she now sought a fuller expression of herself.
She’s become a fashion designer with a line of women’s (and men’s) clothes, particularly hand-stitched creations of scraps of fabric, a style she calls “boro.” I own a deluxe white denim apron she made, imprinted with rusty sprocket designs. I often wear it when I want to “dress up” for our home’s early morning bread pick-up. And Jennifer wears a beautiful scarf, dyed with indigo and the image of a full moon.
Have a look at her website/shop, called Francis-Olive. These are beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces with a hand-made look. Just like her loaves!
She’s also devoted to her garden, producing exceptional year-round vegetable harvests and beautiful flowers. They are as exquisite as her bread ever was! And yes, she still bakes bread and posts photos of her latest loaves on Instagram.
A fuller expression of herself
And just recently, she posted the first-ever picture of herself on her Instagram feed, @girlmeetsrye. She is as I would have imagined and now sporting a fuller expression of herself.
I once asked Francis if she had ever heard of Desem4 bread, a Flemish loaf made with a unique sourdough starter and unsifted whole wheat flour. Indeed, she told me and said to stay tuned!
A couple of weeks later, she posted what I consider to be her magnum opus: a tribute to Desem Bread along with a step-by-step guide on how to build the Desem starter and how to mix and bake the loaf itself.
Desem bread had been covered by Laurel Robertson in The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book and discussed by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott in The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens. Both descriptions were short on detail, but they extolled the beauty and flavour of the loaves.
Francis Olive, like me, felt the mystery of Desem bread but wasn’t going to accept skimpy descriptions about how to make it. So she launched a major project to bring Desem into the light. Francis deconstructed the various recipes, filled in the holes and emerged with her take on Desem bread. She offered day-by-day instructions to develop the starter and the final loaf of bread itself.
The entire blog post amounted to over 50 printed pages, including pictures. I still have my copy of the article, dog-eared and stained and filled with barely legible margin notes.
My Desem loaves were successful from the start, thanks to Francis’ guidance. They were among the first I baked in Mildrith the wood-fired oven and were even better than those from the kitchen oven.
Here was my obsession!
This Desem fascination was something new for me! I was aware this was esoteric bread territory. Not many, I thought, would be hanging off Francis’ every word about an obscure type of Flemish bread, taking notes and cultivating a Desem starter as if it were a child I was giving birth to.
Here was my obsession!
It was laid bare by Francis’ excellent work on Desem Bread.
What was I doing here, I thought. I’d had vital interests before that some would call obsession. Could the bread be a vocation? Is it a flash in the pan or something worth pursuing? I was further gone than I had fully realized, though Jennifer and others had seen it long before. We had retired to Pender Island initially to write books and live an easier life, yet here was bread-making, and it was something more than a passing interest.
I was reading everything I could get my hands on and frustrated that I knew so little. Even now, after almost three years running the Happy Monk Baking Company, I think about bread on my days off, always with an eye open for a new Baker’s Choice, a new book or an online seminar to take.
This obsession arose from me, which spoke to me about bread, food, community, rigour, beauty … life! I have fed this passion actively, so it’s not entirely Francis Olive’s doing.
To the staff of life!
But it was her spark, her love of bread, her imagination that helped open my eyes to a new path of bread, beauty, community.
Francis Olive used to end her blog posts with a toast to bread: “To the staff of life!” she would say.
I sometimes end my own posts with those words as well. It is both a toast to bread itself and an unspoken acknowledgment to Francis, one of my great teachers!
So here’s to you, Francis Olive! And to the staff of life!
See the earlier Happy Monk post, “Bread and “Les Canotiers de la Meurthe.”↩
Bakers often refer to recipes as “formulas” partly because their recipes need to be scalable and are based on “baker’s math,” in which flour is 100% of a formula. All other ingredients are percentages of that. A baker can look at the percentages in a recipe and learn a great deal about the finished product. Learn more about baker’s math at Maurizio Leo’s Perfect Loaf site.↩
Bolting in baking terminology.↩
Pronounced DAY-zum, a Dutch word that means ‘leaven.’↩
3 thoughts on “Francis Olive: “To the Staff of Life””
A rich tribute to your muse. I’m grateful to Francis, you, and the legions of bakers who have kept this tradition alive.
Thanks Davy! Nicely said. And I’m touched by your response.
Another of my baker heroes is Jeffrey Hamelman, whose book, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes has become my standard reference, captures your comment well:
“What a wonderful feeling it is to turn and look behind us at the hundreds of generations who have baked before us, and realize that we have inherited the accumulation of their experience. When we turn and look forward to the innumerable generations of bakers to come, we realize that we are at the fulcrum of this great balance, imbued with a deep responsibility to the future, and hopefully equally imbued with gratitude to our colleagues from the past.”
– Bread, 3rd edition, 2021
[…] posting last week’s blog on one of my bread teachers, I recalled a quote from another baking hero of mine. The U.S. baker and author Jeffrey Hamelman1 […]