This past week I joined a Sullivan Street Bakery event. Hosted by Gustiamo, it was created to introduce flour from Filippo Drago. The event celebrated dough, and bread making. It also included lots of conversation amongst aficionados of good bread. Thanks to all, including James Lahey, Renato Flaborea, Valerio Gottage and the Gustiamo team!
Romanian-born Raluca Micu is the owner/baker of West London's OCTOBER 26, a one woman bakery that specializes in sourdough. Having studied marketing in college, and completed a Masters in public relations, Raluca's first ten years after formal education was working for a telecom company. But in January 2015, she decided to start baking for a living, opening the doors of her bakery three months later. I have been following her online since then. Now she's come to Stir the Pots to share her story.
How did you start baking?
I am not really sure, but I've been baking all my life. I became very interested in food in general around 8 years ago, and decided I want to have a food business. Somehow the idea crystalized that it should actually be a bakery. Initially I thought more about small fancy pastries, but then I started baking sourdough bread at home. I guess the rest is history.
When did you decide that you wanted to open a bakery?
For about two years. From the time I started to bake at home and moaned about my office job! I increasingly realized I was spending most of my days moaning instead of actually enjoying what I was doing. So in the end I made the decision to take redundancy money from my office job and give the bakery a go.
What have been the "highs and lows" of opening the bakery?
The most important highs are people! I've met so many amazing people in the last year of baking. More than I had in 10 years of working in a corporate office. Of course, people can be one of the lows, too. Take the end of a day. You are knackered [and out of bread]. A person walks in the shop, demanding bread. But you sold all your loaves. "You should bake more!" "You should wake up earlier!" "You should employ someone to help you!" "Just make some more now, can't you?"
Luckily it always happens a nice person comes along to tell me: "We love your bread! You have changed our lives!" That makes it all better. That's the biggest high. The fact that most people appreciate so much what I do, that they come back again and again. It's a very satisfying job - something I didn't really feel in my previous jobs.
The other low is that I am tired. My entire body often hurts and I dream of a 10 hour long sleep. I don't think I really thought about how tiring physical work will be in the long run.
What is your favorite loaf?
A dark loaf that I bake on Fridays called "The Wholey Loaf." It's a mixture of 60 percent whole meal, 20 percent light rye and 20 percent white wheat with around 100 percent hydration. It comes out dark and moist, with a nice nutty flavor.
What sort of bread did you grow up eating?
The bread we had in Romania was average. But I do remember the large round loaves that my great grandmother used to bake in a tiny oven in a side room of her house. That was bread! Dark crust, quite heavy, but tasty and fresh!
Where do you look to for inspiration and advice?
Everywhere. Not just fellow bakers that I find inspiring but also cook books, food history books, and my grandmothers.
As a woman in baking, do you find obstacles or prejudices from a male dominated business?
I haven't had the chance to really interact with the bigger industry yet - mostly because I am here six days a week. And the last one I spend with my little one and my husband. So can't say I felt many prejudices or obstacles.
However, what I can't help but feel is that people wouldn't come in and offer unrequested business advice as freely if I was a man.
Do you ever visit other bakeries to see what they’re doing?
Of course! I love to do that. We try to do it as much as we can here in London and when we travel abroad. I also love it when other fellow bakers come to visit me.
How difficult are the hours?
Difficult, but I think more difficult is that by doing everything my hand means every muscles in my body hurts and with only one day off a week is difficult to get enough rest to start a new week fresh.
What’s it like juggling life matters with baking?
I am very lucky to have a great husband who takes amazing care of our daughter when I am not home in the mornings and at the weekend. We try to spend as much time as possible together the rest of the time. And Fiona - my daughter - spends every Monday with me at the bakery wanting to be me "my little helper".
What grain, rye or wheat, spelt show up in your line most often?
It will have to be wheat, though I bake a mix of wheat and rye everyday too and spelt loaves every other day too.
How many people work with you?
None. I work alone for now. It's me and a ROFCO B40 oven. Clearly I have more defined arms since starting this adventure.
When you’re not baking, what do you like doing best?
Spending time with my family, eating new exciting food, reading, and lately growing succulents.
Are you baking with sourdough?
I only bake with sourdough - breads and cinnamon buns are all sourdough.
Do you also include Viennoiserie and pastries as well as bread?
Viennoiserie, not yet. I find it difficult to find any time for R&D and the tests I did last year for puff pastry didn't really turn, as I wanted them too. Hopefully I will get some more testing time this summer. I do make chocolate and lemon éclairs, fruit frangipane galettes and cinnamon buns.
What’s in Raluca’s future, expand or stay small?
Expand but stay small. I need to grow the business a bit both for my customers that request more bread than I can make these days and for financial purposes, but I don't want this business to become too big. I just dream of a mixer, another oven, a proper retarder and maybe two employees.
Tell us about your customer, the Russian Prince!
Aaaah, the Russian Prince. I haven't had the confirmation from him that he has indeed aristocratic Russian blood, but I like to think he is. He is one of the most elegant men I have ever met. I have never seen him without a tie or cravate, always wearing a suit coat and a pocket-handkerchief.
He is a dapper 83 year old man. Our relationship had a shaky start; he would come in and bitch about everything I was or wasn't doing. "It was closed yesterday! You don't work too much do you?! "You have a child?! How did you manage that?"
Somehow at some point things have changed. Now whenever he comes in, he brings me an ornamental plate, kisses me on both cheeks, and says nice things like: "You look lovely today!".
It's been years since visiting Wales to see my friend Mick Hartley, the "no bollocks baker" behind Bethesdabakin. Here's a recent exchange or gift long overdue I wanted to share his story regarding a present about hats!
Lapsed religious obligations can't defeat more primal familial ties. Guilt hits Jew, he bakes matzoh. I used ancient Italian grains (Sicilian Palmento, Parman Miracolo) Einkorn flour from Maine, and then some white whole wheat from Montana. Sadly one last matzoh got carbonized, my offering to the days of old. Chag Semeach!
Banh Mi is the Vietnamese sandwich that captures that nation's delicate flavors combined with remnants of its French colonial past . Below is my home made version. It's a baguette filled with Southeast Asian umami fillings which can include anything from grilled beef to liver pate, along with carrots, pickles and condiments. Recently I found a recipe from Alberto Ferran that used some modernist ingredients, namely flourless tirsol. A powder usually used for frying foods, it is used with Banh Mi to crispen the crust. Adapting it with sourdough, here's my first Banh Mi. Pretty damned tasty!