Bake to Basics
Well into the 19th century, the European village and neighbourhood bakery served as more than mere eatery or commodity outlet. Doubling as part-time “communal oven,” it was a gathering point, a laboratory, a workshop—even a place of education.
“In the past bakeries were family-based things,” says travelling baker Marc-André Cyr. “The knowledge was passed on within a family. Community ovens came from bakers. They regularly gave up their oven so it could be used by the community, they put their ego aside.”
The Industrial Revolution went a long way toward changing all that—both in Europe and North America. Today the vast majority of baked goods consumed by North Americans come to edible form without touching human hands—they’re mixed, kneaded and baked in factories with gargantuan equipment and mammoth ovens.
The artisanal tradition remains strong, particularly here in Quebec. But, surrounded on all sides by a gastro-economy driven by volume and sales, even artisanal bakeries can find it hard to maintain strong connections to the roots of their practice. Cyr, who learned his craft in the latter environment, ultimately felt he had to do more to bring baking back to the community.
“There’s a resurgence of the DIY spirit when it comes to cooking. People today are truly interested in doing it for themselves, doing it as they need it, doing it small. They see first hand how much better it is for the body, the pocketbook and the soul.” – Marc-André Cyr, boulanger itinérant
“I worked for several years at a large artisanal bakery,” he recalls. “But we were often baking one to two thousand pieces of bread a night! It was as large-scale as you could get without resorting to machines. I knew I could not do that forever. I wanted to continue baking, but on my terms.”
Inspired by the collective and pedagogical spirit of community ovens and unwilling to keep his hands out of the dough, Cyr decided to turn his hard-earned knowhow into a personal project.
His pioneering venture, which he calls “baker-on-the-go” (or boulanger itinérant), is an attempt to let Montrealers reclaim two core elements of working with dough: self-sufficiency and pleasure.
“The idea was to demystify baking, to make it fun,” he says.
Montreal’s only boulanger itinérant (so far as anyone knows), Cyr offers laid-back yet productive baking sessions right in the kitchens of cityfolk. The concept is simple: you give him a call and he shows up at your apartment—locally-sourced flour in tow—to guide you through a baguette, a batch of english muffins or a loaf of honey and whole wheat raisin bread.
Cyr was initially surprised at how well Montrealers took to the idea, and thinks it’s part of a wider trend.
“There’s a resurgence of the DIY spirit when it comes to cooking,” says Cyr. “People today are truly interested in doing it for themselves, doing it as they need it, doing it small. They see first hand how much better it is for the body, the pocketbook and the soul.”
Though he introduces clients to organic, locally-sourced flours, he locates a longer-term benefit in the education (and enjoyment) factor. “I try to teach people just enough so that they can do it on their own. It’s a little like meditation, a little like science, but in the end, it’s a fun thing to do in a group, just getting your hands dirty.”
Listening to the hard-working Cyr, who doubles as a sous-chef by day at the Vieux-Port’s celebrated Olive & Gourmando, it’s clear how much inspiration he draws from village bakers of days gone by.
“What they did: giving up their oven, offering skills to others—it’s a small community mentality. I think it’s a beautiful concept.”
If you want to get your hands dirty, give Mr. Cyr a shout at bakeronthego.com, and don’t worry if your apartment’s kitchen has seen better days: any old oven is fine to bake wholesome bread.
Can’t amass a group for a home visit? Cyr’s created a Twitter account (@Bakeronthego) to alert followers to his regular public baking classes at various Montreal shops, restaurants, and cooking schools.