Sophie Williams is a baker who peddles her bicycle and breads to markets, rain and snow! I found her on Instagram, intrigued by her passion for grains. Sophie is busy but she’s taken some time to answer some questions on Stir the Pots and tell the story of Raven Breads.
How did you become a baker?
I came at baking sideways. I studied soil science and ecology in school, which tipped me out of academia and into farming. In my mid-twenties I decided I wasn’t going to be a farmer. Baking seemed like a good alternative: easier, but still rooted in the local food economy and a good way to keep working with both my hands and head. The fact that I’d never worked in a professional kitchen made starting the business much easier. Sometimes, I think, it’s useful to be ignorant of how hard things are going to be.
I made a lot of ugly bread and not a lot of money my first year. My second year, after a three week stage with Dawn Woodward in Toronto, I decided to stop using white or extracted flour because our local hammer mill only produced wholemeal. I had to learn to bake all over again, and I made a lot of more ugly bread, and not a lot of money. But it’s gotten easier since then.
What is your favorite grain?
Rye! It’s so beautifully flavorful and nourishing. Rye breads keep for weeks. And I love that rye is such a weed: tolerant of cold, drought, and poor soils.
I generally try to do as little work as possible. I don’t preshape. I don’t even shape, if I can get away with it. I mix doughs just to incorporation and then build strength (in wheat doughs) with folds. I know I’ve gotten significantly more efficient at mixing over the years because I used to be able to do a bunch of finger tip pull ups, and now I can’t do any.
What is the symbiosis of bakers and bicycles?
I think bicycles are the most logical, cost-effective, fun mode of urban transportation. Everyone, not just bakers, should be riding bikes.
How do you develop or dream bread recipes?
I start most recipes with the ingredients: a grain I’m excited about, a product in the bakery that needs to be used up, the fruit I’ve just gleaned, or produce I’ve bartered for at the farmers market. From there I might adapt an existing recipe or look through my cookbook library for inspiration.
What is the acceptance of people to whole grain breads?
There are definitely some people who want lighter breads, but more people are excited to find breads that are flavorful and filling. My rye breads, which are basically edible bricks, are far and away my best retail sellers. Convincing chefs to use wholemeal wheat bread, never mind rye, is a much bigger challenge. Most try the bread and say something along the lines of, “That’s nice, but it has too much flavor. Could you make baguettes or ciabatta?”
Are you 100% sourdough, or does yeast ever enter the equation?
The few times every year I make rich breads, like challah and babka, I throw in a pinch of yeast along with the prefermented flour because my sourdough doesn’t have enough kick, but other than that it’s natural fermentation all the way down.
How does one reach the plateau of brick and mortar business?
I’m trying to figure that out! Though I imagine it more as another hill to climb than a plateau.
Are you the long distance baker, going the extra kilometer for the bread?
Well, given that I run the business by bicycle, glean almost all of the fruit for my pastries from back alleys and abandoned orchards (on my bicycle), don’t use any extracted flours, and was just running the 2019 numbers and calculated that I bought 67% of my ingredients last year directly from local producers (plus another 5-10% spent on locally produced food purchased through a distributor), I think so.
How does one pull off doing idealism in business?
With blind optimism, the ability to tune out the capitalist mainstream, and willingness to work some very long days. I’ve been in a unique position to stick to my ideals, I think, because I’ve kept my overhead very low to this point by renting space in restaurant commissaries that don’t have any baking equipment, skipping out on car ownership, and doing nearly all the work, from baking to bookkeeping, myself. When you add major expenses like high rents, debt payments, and payroll, there’s a lot more pressure to compromise one’s ethics.
How did dense flavored bread become your signature style and why?
Location: our local hammer mill produces only whole-meal flour.
Stubbornness: baking wholemeal, sourdough breads is more technically challenging, and once I started I felt like I couldn’t stop until I’d mastered the skill.
Personal taste and frugality: I like food that has substance and good keeping quality.
Self preservation: I eat a lot of bread. Like, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with bread snacks in between. Eating a lot of refined flour is a terrible idea, as every nutritionist since the invention of the roller mill has told us, but a lot of fermented whole grains? No problem!
Does quality driven philosophy work, with so many industrial factory breads in the market?
It does. People want to eat good food. It can be maddening to watch the local food movement and the artisan bread movement being copied and corporatized by the industrial food system, just as organic was a few decades ago, but even if they’ve stolen the language for their marketing, they haven’t actually figured out how to make good bread yet. People can tell the difference between a supermarket “artisan” bread line and bread made by skilled hands with good ingredients. At least, that’s what I tell myself!
I’m very fond of the vollkornbrot I make with a smoked red rye malt. It’s sour and smoky and sweet and really just quite lovely.
Who inspires you?
Oh, so many people, and I’m going to forget most of them. I’ve been inspired by Dawn, of course, with her business built on whole grains and other Ontario grown foods. Every time I talk to bakery owners who prioritize their workers—Randy George with Red Hen in VT, Scott Mangold with Breadfarm here in the PNW—I’m impressed and inspired, because arguing for fair labor practices is one thing, but actually implementing them is another entirely. The grain movement in the UK is really exciting—have you listened to the Farmerama podcast yet?—with the Real Bread Campaign, and population wheat breeding projects, and bakeries like Small Food in Nottingham working to make food deeply rooted in their place.