Fresh Bread is Coming to Dartmouth
It seems fitting that we met at the newly opened The Canteen on Portland for our interview. Jessica Best, the owner of Birdies Bread Co., worked for Renée Lavallée for a number of years at her old location above Two If By Sea.
And The Canteen on Portland is also one of Jessica’s first commercial customers. The other notable restaurant using her bread so far is Battery Park.
As Jessica says, “Bread is as slow as you get. I am completely at the mercy of the bread. It’s a slow process. All I can do is guide it along.”
This story began almost a decade ago, in 2008, when Jessica graduated from the Culinary Institute of Canada. Moving back to St. John’s, where she was from, she ended up working at the now very famous Raymonds Restaurant.
While at Raymond’s Jessica had the opportunity to learn under Erin Turke, who taught her how to make sourdough bread.
From St. John’s she moved to Halifax.
Her friendship with Renée opened the door to meeting other entrepreneurs involved in the local food scene. As we sat at the bar Kathy MacDonald from Made with Local came over and said hi to Jessica.
An article by Bill Spurr in the Chronicle Herald on local grains was the eureka moment that started the ball rolling on Birdies Bread Co. The premise of the article was that because there simply wasn’t enough milling capacity in Nova Scotia, a large percentage of local grains were being exported from the province. Jessica wondered if she could help reverse that situation.
The first step was finding the grains. A search led Jessica to Jeff McMahon of Longspell Point Farm in the Annapolis Valley.
The second step was milling the grains herself, for the freshest flour possible. This is particularly important for whole grain flours. Though white flour is shelf-stable for months, whole grain flour contains far more oil and can go rancid.
With everything in place it was time to start baking bread. And selling it, which Jessica does every Saturday at the Alderney Farmers’ Market.
For the Saturday market, Jessica begins making the bread on Thursday. “I’m leaving the bread out on my porch overnight to let it proof (retard) slowly in the cold winter air.”
Once it has proofed, she forms it into individual loaves and starts baking them off. She lines her oven with bricks to retain heat and uses a piece of limestone as a baking stone. “I feel so bad,” she says. “We inherited this lovely KitchenAid oven that I run for almost twenty-four hours straight at 500 degrees Fahrenheit every Friday.”
And it does take her almost 24 hours to bake off her bread for Saturday. She can only do three loaves at a time and bakes off over a hundred loaves each week. “I start baking Friday afternoon, and I usually finish Saturday morning around 5 a.m.,” Jessica says. “That’s when I put the croissants in the oven and then head over to the farmers’ market. I usually crash as soon as I get home in the afternoon.”
This is just the beginning for Jessica and Birdies Bread Co. This spring they’ll be moving into a retail location on Pleasant Street. With the move comes an upgrade in equipment: an industrial mixer, a two-tier steam-injection bread oven, and a new flour mill. About that mill, Jessica tells us, “It’s from Austria, and I’ll be able to mill 50 kilos an hour. I’m planning on selling the flours as well.”
About her move to Pleasant Street, Jessica explains, “We’ll be just outside of downtown Dartmouth. I really wanted to stay downtown, but most of my equipment requires three-phase power, which often isn’t available in older buildings. Though we’re a little off the beaten path, we are on the way to Lawrencetown. I’m hoping that all the surfers will stop by for a coffee and a croissant after they’re done surfing for the day.”
Check it out this spring and follow Jessica’s journey here.