Time travel. A master baker stands in his bakery in Stonybatter, Dublin 7 plying his trade/ craft/ art/ profession/ calling/ passion. He tells how the first sourdough is thought to have been made on the banks of the river Nile in ancient Egypt and invites me to spend an evening watching his stewardship of the ancient process. We inspect the foaming starter sponge, surging over the rim of its container. We sniff the primordial aromas of fermentation. To one side, 25kg bags of wheat flour, rye and oatmeal are stacked high. By morning they’ll be empty. Over five hundred loaves and rolls will leave this small bakery tomorrow morning. We’re in the Zone.
Vlad Rainis begins his day’s work at 3 pm, six days a week. When the day’s order book is all ticked off, he’s finished. It might be before midnight. On Thursday and Friday it’s 2 or 3 am. After a quick cat-nap, he might walk the dogs, then he loads up the van to make his own deliveries when retail businesses and restaurants open.
“I love going to the shops and markets with my bread. People are so happy and they tell me so. They give me great feedback and great ideas for new things to try out. You get a much better response when you have a relationship”
When writing a piece, the power, the action is in the verbs.
Vlad’s lexicon is compact, contemporary and to the point.
Love– verb, transitive
He loves his work, every aspect of it; loves the sourdough starter, made by him here in Stonybatter, fed and nourished every day; he owes it a duty of care and is proud of it.
He loves the dough, proving, rising, being knocked back, proving again, baking it into loaves of bread.
Work– verb, transitive
Lifting, hauling, kneading, shaping, heaving trays of loaves into ovens and delivery vans.
( -“Do you ever go to the gym, Vlad?”
He laughed -“ I was there once and I asked myself ‘Why?’ I get a full body workout here every day” His lean frame moved quickly around the bakery.
“ And I eat everything I want”)
Work– verb, intransitive
Fermentation of yeast, proving.
How to please customers, listen to them, hear their needs and collaborate with them to develop breads for their purposes. L Mulligan Grocer commissioned a walnut studded loaf which is sliced finely and served with their cheeseboard. Customers love it.
He strives to satisfy himself that he’s doing his best, and in so doing, to satisfy his customers. The work itself is hugely satisfying.
When we eat this bread, we too are satisfied. B vitamins and micronutrients naturally occurring in sourdough bread are more bioavailable to human digestion than those in commercial bread. As the French say, ‘c’est bon’ – the body knows when it has been properly fed.
As in ‘how you treat the loaves’. He withdrew his supply from one outlet on discovering that they didn’t cover the loaves overnight.
“ The loaves need to be treated properly or they don’t do well”
“ If you want to be good at what you do, you must give something extra”
What he says is what he does.
Growing up in the Czech Republic, Vlad always wanted to work with food. Apart from one uncle who was a chef, there was no family background in the food industry. He finished school at fifteen years of age and began a three year education to become a professional baker. Of twenty five in his class, only five are professional bakers now.
-“ You work week on/ week off, one week in school, the other in the workplace, beginning at 10 pm and working through the night. Nobody complains about the night work. If you’re a baker, it’s what you do”.
Czech people never lost their appreciation of good bread, even when things were scarce. In the old days, people would queue through the night for bread. Now, Czech people living in Dublin come and collect their order direct from the bakery. One man arrives to collect a weekly order- trays of warm loaves for his family, friends and neighbours in Finglas.
Circumstances brought Vlad to Ireland ten years ago. At first, he had lots of jobs he didn’t like, as he spoke no English. As he learned the language his options improved.
-“ In your twenties you discover what really satisfies you and you begin to work harder to make a success of it”
Premises in the Spade Enterprise Centre became available in 2011. He began baking here on 14th December 2011 and was fully operational by 5th January 2012.
The order book is consulted all the time and is the night’s chief taskmaster. All the time there’s checking, checking, checking.
” You have to check the taste of the dough” says Vlad. “With so much going on it would be easy to add salt twice or not at all”.
The Vlaa is a white roll, first made for L Mulligan Grocer, WJ Kavanagh and Honest2Goodness Market. Vlad’s partner Peter hails from Waterford and got the recipe for the Waterford Blaa from his mother. A mini-Vlaa is planned to go with soup at lunchtime.
These three men are passionate about the making of bread. Colm Walsh lost his job courtesy of the recession, and has found his calling learning from Vlad. He moves around silently, going from one task to another, with an occasional few words between them to check that they’re on track. Casey Cardone came from San Francisco where sourdough bread has a large following. He calls me over to listen to the bread cooling, minutes after it leaves the oven.
I emerge into the night, leaving behind me a world that is pre-modern and can’t be fast-forwarded. Its only variables are the rate of human work and external factors such as ambient temperature and humidity.
Fermentation has always had its own pace and always will. Although highly evolved, we humans haven’t changed much faster over the past few millenia. Good, nutritious bread remains the staff of life.
What stroke of luck brought Vlad Rainis to our inner city Dublin neighbourhood to make great bread? It doesn’t matter. Now that his customers know the difference, there’s no going back.