A Sourdough Bakery Powered by Local Grains and a Bicycle: Q&A with Sophie Williams of Raven Breads
For the local flour movement to grow, it needs bakers who believe in the importance of regionality and sustainably grown grains. Sophie Williams is one of those people.
Based in Bellingham, Washington, a city surrounded by the lush Pacific Northwest forest, mountains and sea, Williams runs Raven Breads, a bakery devoted to slow fermentation and local grains. And she does all of this by bike, delivering her breads all by her own power. She has also written a zine devoted to rye, which anyone whose interested in sourdough baking should check out.
Williams took some time away from her breads and bicycle to tell us more about her baking business, why she’s passionate about local flour and the value of slowing down.
How did you get into baking?
With ignorance and blind optimism. I had been working on farms through my early twenties and when I decided I wasn't going to become a farmer, I started looking for another way to stay rooted in the local food economy. There aren't an overabundance of interesting food jobs in Bellingham, so I set out to make my own. I loved baking, though I'd never done it professionally, and I loved the idea of bringing local grains to my community. I thought, "well, baking can't be any harder than farming," rented time after hours in a pizzeria's commissary kitchen and, like every other young, West Coast baker, started making bread from the Tartine cookbook. A year later I flew out to Toronto to stage for three weeks with Dawn Woodward of Evelyn's Crackers. Dawn was (and still is) a kickass, opinionated, female baker focused on the flavors of grain and on supporting Ontario farmers. Her work made sense to me in a way the California baker culture never had. I came home from that trip, put Tartine away on the shelf, stopped buying roller-milled white flour, and never looked back.
Why do you choose to do everything by bicycle?
Why do people travel by car? They're bad for our health, they create noise, air, and water pollution that disproportionately affect our poorest neighbors, they encourage hardscaping and suburbanization, the public subsidies to fuel and transportation infrastructure are regressive, the fossil fuel industry encourages morally indefensible geopolitics and environmental destruction, and they're expensive. The only real arguments for driving are convenience and speed. Trading the harm and expense of a car for the slight inconvenience of a bicycle whenever possible seems like a reasonable choice to me. Also, I like biking.
Seems to me like there is some kind of a crossover between baking and riding a bike, the value of slowing down in each. Do you feel that way?
Yes. Traditional business logic puts profit and efficiency above all else, but I think that ethics and craftsmanship deserve equal weight. Baking wholemeal, sourdough bread with good, local grain certainly doesn't make the quickest or the cheapest bread, but the process is complex and satisfying, and the end result is flavorful, nutritious, and supports our community from seed to table. Biking, too, is a slower and more pleasurable choice, and keeps my spending closer to home.
Where do you source your flour from? There's a growing interest in local flour across the country, why do you think that's important?
I currently get all my flour from Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, which is located just 20 miles south of Bellingham (and no, I don't pick up pallets off flour by bicycle- I often get friends who drive to work nearby to pick up orders in exchange for bread, or I use a carshare to pick them up myself). There are other excellent mills in the region--Cairnspring, also in the Skagit Valley, Camas Country down in Junction City, Oregon, Bluebird over on the east side of the mountains--and eventually I'll likely use some of their flours as well, but for now my orders are small enough that it makes sense to buy from a single mill.
As for the second question, the majority of calories consumed in the U.S. are from grain products, and the majority of the cropland in the U.S. is used for grains and pulses. Neither the white flour pastries and yeasted breads that we're eating, nor the subsidized, industrial monocropping that dominates our agricultural landscape are healthy for us, our environment, or our economy. Relocalizing grain production and reconnecting eaters to those grains is an essential part of building resilience, health, and cuisine* into our food systems.
*I'm not sure this is the right word. Culture? Community? Connection?
What is your favorite thing about baking bread? What is the most difficult?
Those are one and the same. Sourdough bread is alive. It's complicated and interesting and difficult and satisfying. If baking were easy, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
What inspired you to write a zine about rye?
I've been fascinated with rye since I started the bakery but have found few resources to help me learn about baking with it. Baking with rye is very different from baking with wheat, and American baking culture is firmly rooted in wheat. Last year, I gathered what I'd learned over the years from reading, talking to other bakers, and from my own trial and error into a workshop for the Grain Gathering in Washington State. I posted some notes from that class on social media, and immediately started fielding questions from other bakers. Eventually, I decided that instead of answering individual questions in Instagram comment threads and private emails, I should just write the information up into a zine that anyone could access. The result was the first volume of the Up Rye Zine, which you can read for free on my website, or order in paper for a small fee.
Papercut illustration by Anna Brones