Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sidewalk Citizen



I'm so thankful for people who are doing their part to make this city more vibrant, adding life to the street. I'm even more thankful when they can bake a beautiful loaf of bread. One such person is Aviv Fried, creator of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. Inspired by none other than the urban planning guru Jane Jacobs and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Aviv set out to build a business that engages the citizenry on its sidewalks –To add a new step to the distinctive dance of the city.

I paraphrase here from Jane's book:

Under the seeming disorder of the city, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, we may liken it to a dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole–The ballet of the good city sidewalk.

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is not a place - but it's part of the sidewalk ballet. You don't go to it, rather it comes to you, through Aviv's niffty bike delivery service. Once a week, Aviv bakes scrumptious artisanal bread using local, organic ingredients (more on this later) and drops it off at your inner-city home or office at its peak of freshness. All you have to do is email or call to have your name added to the list of happy customers. Having savoured many a loaf of Aviv's bread, I can attest to its fantastic flavour and perfect texture. It's a loaf that you are more accustomed to seeing in France - all rustic and earthy. A bread that time may have forgotten, but is seeing a resurgence with a rise (pardon the pun) in more unique offerings by European-style bakers who want to satiate the desires of serious foodies everywhere.



Aviv's bread is made with Red Fife wheat. Unless you are in the artisanal baking business, you've probably never heard of it. The Fife family heritage wheat has been grown in Canada since 1842. Red Fife wheat was slowly phased out over the years, replaced by higher yielding varieties, but it took one women in B.C. to bring it back – Sharon Rempel. Searching for a higher quality grain that she could grow locally, Rempel was able to get her hands on some seeds and reintroduce the grain to Canada. Made into flour using the natural stone milling technique, the wheat is flavourful and full of healthy nutrients. Just as the wine industry identifies the 'terroir' where its grapes are grown, the artisanal baker is smartly starting to market the type of grain used in creating their bread. It does not come cheap. Organic Red Fife flour made from a stone mill costs three times more than it's industrially made 'enriched' equivalent. But it's worth it.



As Aviv put it, the goal of a good baker is to try and extract as much flavour from the wheat as possible. They do this by first grinding the wheat using a stone mill, an ancient process that slowly rolls and peels the grain, maintaining the wheat's nutrients and flavour, unlike the commercial process where metal edges sharply tear the grain, depleting it of important vitamins. Then the fermentation process must be allowed to take its time naturally (in commercial processing, they just add more yeast to speed it up), and finally, to use only the best, simplest ingredients. That means no extra yeast, sugar or artificial ingredients can be added. That also means taking your time and baking in smaller batches. It's doing things the old fashioned way!

Aviv could talk for hours on the science behind his bread (he does have a masters degree in biomedical engineering) but its the art of bread making that seduced him into a mid-career shift. Having studied under bakers from Vermont to Paris, he has discovered that it is the many intricate and subtle details that make the difference between creating an average loaf of bread and a loaf of bread of the highest quality. With careful trial and error, the use of the best ingredients, and feedback from some of the word's top bread bakers, he's finally found his stride.



Speaking of stride, it's his unique delivery system that really adds to the sidewalk ballet. His choice of bike for transporting the bread is deliberate. First, he does not want to add to an already growing number of cars on the street, and second, he is able to better interact with the street, to engage people in his activity. He's not hidden away behind a dark car windshield, but out on the sidewalk engaging in conversation, adding to the street life. And like the ubiquitous milkman of the 50s,what could be more sociable than someone delivering directly to your door?



I've noticed a growing number of articles cautioning us about the next potential global crisis –food shortages. With fires raging in Russia, and Canada experiencing some of the coolest, wettest temperatures on record – because of changing climate patterns, we may be at a point in our history where farmers cannot meet the world's grain needs. Grain prices are rising. Arable land is growing more and more scarce. I know I sound a bit alarmist here but wasn't it the high cost of bread that tipped off the French Revolution?

I think we take the abundance of food we have for granted and that's never a good thing. I also think we underestimate the need for vibrant, social engagement on our streets. Companies like Sidewalk Citizen Bakery enrich and nourish communities on the micro (nutrients) and macro (engaging street) levels. And most of all, its people like Aviv who add to the dance of the street, making the city a better place to live.

Making me, and many others, happy urbanists.

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