What's the true value of a loaf of bread painstakingly made by hand, with the most earnest of intentions and the best possible ingredients? That's what passionate amateur baker Malin Elmlid meant to discover when she started the Bread Exchange a year-and-a-half ago. The concept of this eccentric bartering project took shape around the time a friend of a friend offered her two tickets to the Berlin Philharmonic in return for a loaf of her homemade sourdough. "It was perfect," says the 31-year-old, Berlin-based Swede. "His father's a violinist in the orchestra and always has extra tickets, and I always have too much bread lying around."
That first trade with an acquaintance inspired Elmlid to create a Bread Exchange Facebook page, on which to announce when she had loaves available for trade. And she composed a manifesto on her blog, "Miss Elmlid, and what to do when it is time off," wherein she enumerated things that, for her, seemed a worthy trade for her artisanal bread. The items read almost like a poem or a heartfelt list jotted down in a journal: a bouquet of flowers or a handful of herbs, made or grown with dedication; special ingredients from a hometown or a far-off place, such as vanilla from Madagascar; or quirkier thingsa guitar lesson, a cherished book, repairs to her bike.
That all happened back in February 2010. Since then, the Bread Exchange has grown bigger than Elmlid ever imagined. "I'd say I have about 1,000 traders," says Elmlid. "But I don't do this to meet new people. I do it to discover new things.".
In exchange for two loaves, an employee of Berlin's Design Hotels group set Elmlid up with two free nights; she spent one at the Louis Hotel in Munich, now one of her favorite places to stay. In another trade, the owners of a high-end deli that offers wine classes signed her up for a course on German and Austrian whites. Elmlid has traded her bread for a pair of jeans, an original drawing, free meals at restaurants and artisanal foods, from homemade jams to sea salts. "Almost everything I eat is a gift, or made from gifts," Elmlid says.
What's difficult to imagine is how someone with such a demanding careerElmlid is the sales manager for Levi's XX in Germany, Austria and Switzerlandhas this much time to bake. But in a way, her fashion career is what pushed her to bake bread. Prior to Levi's, she'd worked for the cutting-edge Scandinavian street-wear label Wood Wood, which had her traveling nonstop. That made her a little homesicknot just for Sweden itself, but also for her homeland's traditional sourdough.
"I started searching out bakeries in cities like Paris and Antwerp," Elmlid recalls. Then, at the Bo Bech bakery in Copenhagen, she had what she calls the perfect sourdough: "It was crunchy but still moist." She started baking in an attempt to replicate that loaf, and the hobby soon became an obsession. "I had something bubbling in every corner of my home," she says.
But first she had to coax her own "mother" to life. (A sourdough mother, or starter, is a stable yeast-plus-bacteria culture that lives in a mixture of flour and water; each new batch of bread has its origin there.) She began with fermented rhubarb and apples, kept adding flour and water, and five years later still uses this original mother for every loaf. "My starter has been at every Fashion Week I've worked, every summer holiday I've been on," she says. "I have to feed it every day."
In 2009, Elmlid contacted Manfred Enoksson, "the best sourdough baker in Sweden," she says. He agreed to let her spend two weeks working with him at a bakery in the town of Höje. There, she learned "to understand the dough," she says. "To intuitively know when to feed it and fold it. If I don't do it at the right moment, the bread gets too sour, or I don't get the bubbles inside that I'm looking for." The tradition surrounding this task also keeps her grounded, despite a career in the capricious world of fashion. "Baking bread," she says, "is an age-old rite."
Trading bread for other foods is undoubtedly an ancient ritual, too, but with the Bread Exchange's success, Elmlid has run into an unexpected problem: too much food. "I tend to get a lot of strawberry jam," she admits. As a result, she often shares her spoils with friends and colleagues, as she did one Sunday at a potluck brunch.
The smell of bread infused her apartment. She'd made eight loaves, spiking several with charcoal, which colors the crust and dough a deep gray without changing the flavor. One friend brought prototypes for a line of jellies she was launching called Pump Up the Jam; another had given her a potted goji-berry tree. "I love when a trade becomes its own little ecosystem," Elmlid said, plucking the bright red berries for her version of Bircher muesli, a cold cereal of grains and seeds usually made with milk or cream. "I use yogurt and coconut water, so it's less heavy," she explained.
After a round of eye-opening coffee mocktails, Elmlid produced a tower of Liège-style wafflesfamous for their caramelized exterior and their pop of sweetness from Belgian pearl sugar, which she'd received as a trade. Then she made a caviar cake, laying stripes of fish eggsanother tradeover a custard topped with crème fraîche.
Later, as her guests crowded onto the terrace to enjoy the unexpectedly warm day, Elmlid cleared the table. "Maybe one day I'll open a bakery," she said. "But a normal one? That wouldn't hold my interest. I'll still have to allow for trading."
Gisela Williams is the European correspondent for Food & Wine. She lives with her family in Berlin.
Food Bartering: What's a Loaf Worth?
2 Jars of Jam
Malin Elmlid trades a loaf of her sourdough bread for two jars of homemade jam (or two bottles of Pump Up the Jam , left). While she is rarely given store-bought versions, a Swedish friend brought her a jar of nicely wrapped jam from Ikea as a joke.
5 Kilograms of Belgian Pearl Sugar
During a pop-up bakery she did in Paris, Elmlid traded a loaf of bread for a bag of sugar balls. They are an essential ingredient in crispy Liège waffles. $18 for 2 lbs of Lars' Own Belgian Pearl Sugar; amazon.com.
1 Small Goji-Berry Plant
Since Elmlid received the goji plant, it's grown to two feet tall. She uses the antioxidant-rich berries in her muesli. $13 for 1 plant from gurneys.com; $12 for 1 lb of dried berries from nutsonline.com.