All bark and bite: Chef Katie Hayes operates Newfoundland’s only Le Panyol oven, made in France and fired with local birch.
If she’s perturbed about inviting a bread killer into her kitchen, Katie Hayes doesn’t show it. Although I’ve always wanted a house filled with the scent of homemade loaves, the back of my fridge is a crime scene: Many a sourdough culture has met its demise there (most recently one for Amish Friendship Bread, the culinary equivalent of a chain letter that circulated with instructions to feed it or it will die, die, die!). Listening to my Lady Macbeth soliloquy, Hayes wastes no time handing me an apron. “Oh yeah, it was scarier than taking care of my child!” she says, recalling the first culture she babysat. A Red Seal cook, she’s well aware that in restaurants – where they call it feeding the baby, the mother, or worse – the responsibility for the starter weighs heavily.
I’ve come to the Bonavista Social Club, home to the only commercial wood-fired oven in Newfoundland, to get over the guilt. The bakery is set amid a scattering of homes on the edge of the Atlantic, and the view makes the rest of the world fall away: Against dark hills, the breeze tickles fennel fronds, honeybees bask in southern exposure and humpback whales breach in the distance. The collapse of the cod fishery has spawned new cottage country and new cottage industries, and Upper Amherst Cove, with a year-round population of 36, encapsulates rural Newfoundland’s craggy charms. Like many outport villages, it’s a can-do community. The Rock is hard land to till – as a child, Hayes helped clear bucketloads of rocks from the garden plots – yet she and her husband Shane grow just about everything they need for their bakery, eatery and teaching kitchen, except wheat for the breads and pizzas (though apparently there’s a Jamaican guy on the bay who grows his own). Hayes’ father, Mike Paterson, an accomplished woodworker, built the soaring facilities, right down to the tables, cutting boards and rolling pins.
Sourdough – a product of water, flour, salt and naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria (namely lactobacilli, which impart that sour taste) – is different from other breads. It’s alive, and it’s wild stuff. “You don’t have control, it is the boss,” Hayes says, describing how on warm days in the cove, the dough is practically crawling out of the containers. If bakers’ attachments to their starters are legendary – they name them, travel with them, grow old with them – it’s because the longer the fermentation, the better the taste. A blend of nurture and nature makes sourdough so distinctively delicious.
The bake is a three-day process. We feed the gloopy culture its dose of water, flour and rye, we mix it, we let it proof, we punch it back. My favourite part is shaping the loaves: It’s amazing how the human hand learns, how my palm senses what’s right, how my fingers instinctively reach for more flour. Tucked between folds of cloth, the loaves overnight in the fridge. The next morning, we score the tops deeply with a razor blade before sliding them into the blasting Le Panyol oven. Half an hour later, we pull them out to cool. “Deadly,” Hayes says, slicing into the golden-brown crust. “Killer,” I agree, without flinching. I take the warm slices and a pot of butter sprinkled with local sea salt (call it sel Neuve) out to the porch, where the ocean and the future stretch out before me. I’m as guilt-free as it gets.
Air Canada and Air Canada Express offer convenient daily service to St. John’s from a host of cities across Canada. Bonavista is then four hours away by car.