These Women Are Making Bread Better for Everyone
Whenever the word "woman" or "female" is used as a prefix, you can cue the arched eyebrows and weary eye rolls from millions of women. Female judge, female engineer, female chef — why should a job description need gender specification?
To those who say it's a way of making up for lack of representation: We need to work harder at creating equal opportunities so that women don't need pink fences to mark our space.
Yet here I am, writing about the women of bread. But I do this to bring attention to an exciting movement and a specific moment in time. Historically, men have baked commercially in shops and kitchens, while women baked at home or in markets. Today, this old dynamic is being turned on its head, with women leading the charge in the business of baking.
In my personal bread journey, women have taught and inspired me in ways that diverge from the traditional nurturing matriarch narrative. My mentors are professional chefs, as well as sculptors, lawyers, chemists, and actors—a diversity of professions that's reflected in their wide range of approaches to bread baking. Taking advantage of better working conditions (finally compatible with the pursuit of a life outside of work) and of a renaissance in the supply chain (with younger generations taking on crops and mills), these women bakers are thriving. They are opening microbakeries on farms, revolutionizing bread in restaurants, using dough in lieu of clay or paint in artwork, collecting and preserving seeds (as many women do in many agri-cultures), and baking to forge a path toward autonomy in disadvantaged areas.
The women bakers I most admire seek a complex palette of ingredients, swapping common for ancient wheat, rye, oats, barley, and corn. They honor the tradition of unleavened and naturally leavened breads, whether it's with sourdough-style country loaves or with flatbreads. Preserving or innovating on the lineage of regional recipes is a given for them. Bread entrepreneurship is their way to pursue a more sustainable food system, a tool for social activism and personal expression.
Beyond their affinity for dough, they share a code, a healthy indifference toward competitiveness and braggadocio. Muscle-flexing about the technicalities of the process is not their style, though they sure know those technicalities well. Reverse engineering the process is more of a male obsession that has dominated the bread movement in the past few years; there's a reason why Silicon Valley is home to a big contingent of "sourdough bros" and why science-driven tomes like the Modernist Bread collection are authored mostly by men. (Anecdotally, whenever I post a photo of my ciabatta on Instagram, at least a couple of men slide into my DMs asking me, "H2O%?", something women never do.) I think we are more interested in delivering flavor, nutrients, and culture than in showing off.
Take, for example, Vanessa Kimbell, founder of The Sourdough School in Northampton, United Kingdom, who is on a mission to prove the benefits of a long fermentation of whole wheat on gut microbiome health. Equally obsessed with stone-ground milling and rich-flavored pain au levain baked in wood-fired ovens is Apollonia Poilâne, gallerist, baker, and CEO of the famous Parisian boulangerie. She took over the family business at 18 while studying at Harvard, following the tragic loss of her parents. Belgium, too, has its queen of wood-fired baking: Sarah Lemke of De Superette, in Ghent, the bakery and restaurant opened by chef Kobe Desramaults.
Italy has the world's highest number of landrace and heirloom varieties of wheat (heirloom grains are consistently selected by farmers or agronomists and are a few hundred years old; ancient grains like einkorn have been grown for 30,000 years), not to mention evolutionary populations (thousands of old and new varieties of wheat sown in the same field), and almost all artisan bakers incorporate these deeply aromatic flours in their loaves. Two are former chemists, Aurora Zancanaro, of Le Polveri, a microbakery in Milan, and Lorenza Roiati, of L'Assalto ai Forni, in Ascoli Piceno, a historic town in Le Marche, a region known for its grain. Rural life also becomes Louise Bannon, a Ballymaloe Cookery School trainee, who's made bread for Noma Australia and in the Pyrenees mountains (with heirloom wheat grown by Andy Cato of the band Groove Armada). She has opened Tír Bakery on a farm in northwest Denmark, where she bakes with grains freshly milled a few feet away from where they were harvested.
Pam Yung, formerly of Semilla, in Brooklyn, split the last months of 2021 between her role as head chef of James Lowe's Flor wine bar and bakery, in London, and a residency at Dan Barber's Stone Barns, in upstate New York. Even pre-Tartine, California was making sourdough cool, with the bakeries opened by Nancy Silverton and Alice Waters. Today, the Golden State is home to a strong base of cottage bakeries and independent shops owned by women, places like Wayfarer Bread, in San Diego, which Crystal White crowdfunded on Kickstarter after a successful string of pop-ups, or Proof Bakery in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, started by Korean-born Na Young Ma and currently run as a co-op by her employees—proof that small can be not just beautiful but also meaningful, serving the local community, one bread roll at a time.
The most political is Lexie Smith, Queens-based artist and model behind the project Bread on Earth; through her haunting ancestral breads, she brazenly initiates conversations on money, religion, conflict, and sex. The youngest is Kitty Tait, 17-year-old baker of The Orange Bakery, in Oxfordshire. In Mexico, there's a mother-daughter duo, Patricia Rangel and Breana Bauman, of Breana's Toast. Rangel, a single mother of two, chose to focus on gourmet pan crocante for its longer shelf life, knowing she wouldn't have to make it every morning, and used her skills as an industrial designer to create the production line, based in Guadalajara.
As much as we should all celebrate the artistry and vision of these women, we must also remember that not all women have the freedom to run businesses, especially in regions lacking political and economic stability. That is why I'm thankful for projects like Mavia Bakery, a social enterprise in Beirut, Lebanon, that was started by baker Brant Stewart, is run by women, and trains Syrian refugees; or The Women's Bakery, which was founded in Rwanda by Peace Corps volunteer Markey Culver and prepares vulnerable women to manage bakeries in their communities (much like Jessamyn Rodriguez, who has been empowering immigrants and women of color through bread with Hot Bread Kitchen, her NYC nonprofit). In these pages, you'll meet other exciting bakers, ideas, and attitudes. Seek them out and support them; try their recipes (starting on p. 88). The world is a richer place thanks to what they do.
From social activists and Mexican matriarchs to performance artists, these are some of the world's most exciting bread bakers.
Chef Elena Reygadas runs a growing number of eateries in Mexico City, from the original and charming Rosetta to the newer Café Nin and Pizzería Lardo, but her true passion is sourdough, conchas, and guava-filled rolls. Find them at her world-famous Panadería Rosetta.
Elvia León Hernández makes 90 pounds of fresh masa every day with white corn from two farms in Oaxaca. "It tastes and smells like milpa [the cornfield], like maíz farmed organically from seeds planted with our feet," she says. For 20 years she's served tortillas, tamales, and memelas to the neighborhood from her comal in San Juan Bautista la Raya. In 2018, with her son Jorge, a chef trained at Enrique Olvera's Pujol in Mexico City, she opened Alfonsina (also a F&W World's Best Restaurant!).
Originally from Lima, Peru, Marisol Malatesta is a performance artist who runs Tilde Forno Artigiano, with her partner, Simone Conti, in the Northern Italian town of Treviglio. Dough is the medium through which she expresses herself, for instance, with the "cracker mask" project, reproducing human emotions and faces in cracker form.
What's a Korean American pastry chef who has worked at Per Se, Noma, and Mirabelle doing in Piedmont? The answer is Rantan, a micro-farm with chef's table that Carol Choi co-owns with her husband, chef Francesco Scarrone, where her deeply aromatic sourdough made with Italian heritage flours accompanies a menu inspired by her and Scarrone's roots.
Roxana Jullapat has a journalism degree and a love for the "mother grains" like barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and wheat. They're the backbone of her menu at Friends & Family, the bakery/restaurant she co-owns in her native Los Angeles. Mother Grains is also the title of her first cookbook (Norton 2021).
In a small village of the Central African Republic, Yvette Abaka founded the all-female "boulangerie communautaire," part of a larger EU project on wildlife conservation and community outreach, an inspiring example of women empowerment in one of the most politically unstable pockets of Africa.
After studying French literature, Pelin Uğur Akün opened a travel agency and then a bakery thanks to a state-run program encouraging women entrepreneurs. At Pelin'in Ekmeği in Istanbul, "we combine Turkish and Western influences. Our Tartine-style loaf is made with a sourdough starter, our village loaf with a portion of dough reserved from the previous day, as they've done in Anatolia since the dawn of bread," she explains.
What Wheat is That?
Ancient: Wild einkorn was grown around 30,000 years ago, which is why, from an evolutionary standpoint, bread wheat is "young" at just 8,000 years old.
Landrace and heirloom (or heritage): Collectively known as "old varieties" and refer to grains selected by the consistent work of the farmer in a specific environment (landrace), or by agronomists (e.g. White Sonora, in the U.S.) Mostly, they're no more than a few hundred years old. All these wheats are packed with antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients, and their gluten is weaker. Flavor-wise, they reflect the peculiarities of their terroirs, just like grapes. In fact, some bakers can identify them just by smelling them.
What to Buy?
Why paint in black and white when you can access a rainbow? Choose stone-milled organic-grown grains that deliver maximum nutrients and flavor and support small, local productions. They are more expensive, yet as Sarah Owens says: "We are at a critical moment in time where change is inevitable, but growth is optional. Every dollar we spend is a vote to initiate more positive change." You can find these flours in select supermarkets, specialty stores, or online, purchasing directly from the producers. A few to look out for: Anson Mills, Arrowhead Mills, Bob's Red Mill, Cairnspring Mills, Capay Mills, Grist & Toll, Hayden Flour Mills, and King Arthur. Sicily-based Molini del Ponte exports some old varieties of durum wheat flour to the U.S. through Gustiamo. gustiamo.com
TOP PHOTO: First row: Valeria Messina, Sarah Owens, Apollonia Poilâne.Second row: Monika Walecka, Carol Choi, Pamela Yung.Third row: Marisol Malatesta, Ava Celik, Elvia León Hernández. CREDIT: (MESSINA) ELENA FICHERA; (OWENS) NGOC MINH NGO (COURTESY OF ROOST BOOKS); (POILÂNE) PHILIPPE VAURES-SANTAMARIA; (WALECKA) ALEKSANDRA PAVONI; (CHOI) GABRIELE FACCIOTTI; (YUNG) TK; (MALATESTA)SIMON CONTI; (CELIK) ROBERT RIEGER; (HERNÁNDEZ) JALIL OLMEDO