Going against the grainPublished on September 10, 2007

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  • Fresh ingredients are a must

  • Dusting the bread baskets

  • Each loaf is individually shaped

  • Another tray is ready for the oven.

One of Ottawa's premier breadmakers combines a passion for quality with traditional methods, and his mouth-watering results leave customers devouring every crumb

In the pre-dawn light, Kevin Mathieson is as flour-coated as his Art-is-in Bakery's tile floor. His hands deftly mix, knead and shape hundreds of kilograms of flour into what will be more than 1,000 loaves of bread by morning. What is arguably Ottawa's most delicious bread is 19 hours in the making each day; its secret ingredient is this baker's passion.

Despite the gruelling schedule, Kevin's flour-smudged face breaks into a boyish grin and he bubbles with enthusiasm once he begins to talk about his craft. "As a kid, I always wanted to be a chef. I loved mixing things together and became fascinated with the process of fermentation and watching dough rise. I first thought I'd like to become an executive chef and travel the world, but the more I cooked, I realized that baking was my true passion."

Kevin, a 29 year old originally from Winnipeg, was lured to Ottawa when offered the position of head pastry chef at the Brookstreet Hotel. "I fell in love with the city first, and then with the hotel's sommelier, Stéphanie, who is now my wife and business partner," he explains.

Kevin's workday typically begins around nine in the evening, when he arrives to start mixing the dough for the 700-800 baguettes he turns out each night. One of the secrets to Art-is-in's richly flavoured bread is a yeast, water and flour mixture called poolish, which pre-ferments for 14 hours before the bread dough is mixed.

Adding to the baguettes' allure is Kevin's choice of fantastic flavour combinations. From 12-grain with fennel to roasted garlic with fresh rosemary to Kalamata olives, each variety bears the hallmark of Kevin's hand-made process and attention to detail. "Consistency is very important to me; it requires constant adjustments in the yeast, liquid or proofing time from season to season to be sure the bread turns out the same every day."

Once the dough has been mixed for the Dynamite baguettes — so named because of their tendency to blow up while baking, creating the desired air pockets under the crust — it is left to bulk ferment for three hours. After folding and shaping, the loaves are left to rise for another hour and a half before baking.

Meanwhile, work on the organic sourdough breads begins; their flavours run the gamut from nine-grain to dried cranberry to stone-ground rye with caraway seeds and more. "I work alone for the first few hours each night, then other staff arrive to help as needed. We are usually done by nine or so in the morning. I go home, have lunch with my wife, then sleep until it's time to get up and come back to the bakery."

Kevin concedes that the baker's lifestyle is not easy. "Occasionally I find the schedule a little frustrating, but the feedback from people who love my bread reminds me that it's all worth it. It blows me away that I've gotten this far and received this much recognition. I guess it proves that hard work really does pay off."

Vince Piazza, one of Kevin's loyal customers and owner of the Ottawa Bagelshop and Deli, says he is proud to stock such high-quality products. "People love them - the response has been phenomenal. Not only do they recognize the quality of these breads, they appreciate, as I do, that they are handmade and unique. The only complaint we get is that they are too good and people eat more of it than they intend to."

Similarly, everyone at Beckta Dining & Wine was amazed by his breads' great texture, balance of flavours and lightness when Kevin first stopped by to show them his products. "What also really impressed us about Kevin and Stéphanie was that they really treat baking as an art and offer incredible service rather than just looking at it as a business," says Stephen Beckta.

Kevin's not sure why, in today's low-carb era, his breads are so popular. "Perhaps it's because people have decided that if they're going to eat bread, it's going to be really, really good bread. I use a lot of healthy ingredients and there are no chemicals in any of my products," he explains.

And as for the incomparable taste, Kevin says he's simply making the bread that he loves to eat. "It's light, salty and chewy, with lots of flavour. I think that what I created for my own tastebuds is, in fact, representative of what a lot of Canadians enjoy."

Kevin's tips for better bread baking at home:

- Always use the best quality ingredients possible, including unbleached flour. - If you are adding whole grains to your bread, consider crushing them first. You must also soak them ahead of time — softer grains will protect the gluten in the bread and lead to a better finished product. - Don't punch dough down as many traditional cookbooks suggest. You want to keep the gluten in the bread intact. Similarly, fold it rather than pounding it when kneading. - You should always score the top of your bread (preferably with a razor blade) to allow it to rise higher. - To mimic the steam feature of commercial ovens, which gives bread a dark, chewy crust, preheat a cast iron frying pan for half an hour in a 450° oven. Pour one cup of water into the frying pan when you put your bread in the oven; five minutes later add another cup of water. - A fully baked loaf should feel nice and light, with an evenly browned bottom crust. -- Paula Roy -- Photography by Darren Brown




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