Toronto's Essential Artisan Bread Guide
There’s nothing like a piece of warm bread slathered in slowly melting butter.
Or a hearty crust softening as it bathes in the remains of a rich stew. Or a baguette being entirely devoured before you know it, one bite at a time, each morsel a faithful craft for the decadent cheeses and earthy pâtés carefully selected for your board. We are a bread-loving household, but we were also a bread-fearing one not long ago. For years, Nick was Paleo and I regarded bread as a treat, in the same way a triple chocolate cake is a treat. Eating bread was a guilty pleasure. But what were we guilty of, exactly?
With the rise of low-to-no carb diets in the past couple of decades, bread has been vilified, along with pasta and starch-heavy potatoes, as being a primary culprit in North America’s weight problem. It certainly didn’t help that legitimate diseases related to gluten intolerance or sensitivity had taken the stage, giving CPG marketers new material for promoting gluten-free products for all - even those who don’t need it.
What changed our perspective on bread? Our love for Netflix food documentaries. As Nick explained in The Art and Struggle of Sourdough, Michael Pollan’s latest book-on-film, Cooked, blew our minds with the Bread episode. I used to think that sourdough was just a flavour. And I’ve never felt so ignorant than when I was hit with that “Aha!” moment. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of; the truth is that the majority of the population has no idea about the importance of sourdough.
For starters (pun intended), the sour taste you get in sourdough is actually the result of the fermentation method. Yes; bread is a fermented product. The sourdough starter used in breadmaking is a natural leavening agent made of a fermented mixture of flour and water. That’s it. It’s what makes bread rise. Since the process of making sourdough bread can take up to 24 hours (and that’s after you’ve already created the starter), industrialization did away with naturally leavened bread, replacing sourdough starters with commercial yeast in an attempt to make bread cheaper, faster, and more shelf-stable. And therein lies the problem. Michael Pollan claims, and there is much evidence supporting this, that most of the issues surrounding gluten sensitivity or intolerance only began to surface after the industrialization of breadmaking. Sourdough, insofar as sensitivity goes, may be the key.
During the sourdough’s fermentation process, enzymes begin to break down the gluten in the flour, making the bread easier to digest. This doesn’t happen with commercial yeast. In fact, as with arguably all processed foods, it is the commercial processing method that has made bread unhealthy and for some, intolerable. Once we understood all of this, we began to re-introduce bread back into our diet.
It’s an exciting time for artisan bread in Toronto, so we’ve put together our shortlist of favourites. As the slow food movement thrives, bakers are devoting themselves to making the healthier bread our ancestors made; using natural ingredients and traditional methods. Most of the more notable artisan breadmakers in the city have just opened their doors in the last five years, and they’re just getting started.
What is an “artisan” breadmaker, exactly? Well, the term is unfortunately used rather loosely. “Artisan” is often used to describe a handcrafted item made with quality components, but that’s open to interpretation. At a time when artisan anything is en vogue, there are no definitive guidelines as to what businesses get to use that term.
For the sake of argument, we’ve defined artisan bread as being handmade, using traditional methods and natural ingredients. In most cases the flour sourced by these bakeries is local and organic, with a preference for heritage grains. Now, not every loaf that comes out of the bakeries we’ve chosen are made with sourdough, but there is a concerted effort in keeping the ingredients as natural and healthy as possible. The best part? These bakeries will hands down beat any grocery-bought loaf any day.
One last caveat, as with all of our maps and guides, boundaries need to be drawn to maintain a sense of control and integrity. Toronto is a vast city, with its borders being challenged on a regular basis. These are our personal trusted favourites located South of Bloor, West of Leslie, and East of Roncesvalles.
The Essential List
St John’s Bakery
The bread at St John’s Bakery is organic and baked in the traditional French method. Legend has it that the starter used in their sourdough breads originated in Europe, 300 years ago. Rustic and dense, this bread is perfect for hearty and comforting meals, such as stews and braises.
The bakery is a non-profit extension of St John’s The Compassionate Mission, committed to social change and fostering an inclusive community. St John’s core team of bakers train and mentor at-risk individuals in need of social services - refugees, those struggling with addiction or mental illness, and more. This is bread with a conscience.
Open since 2001, St John’s is the oldest bakery of the bunch, earning them a foothold in the city. In addition to selling out of the bakery, their breads can be found at over 50 retailers, restaurants, farmers’ markets, and caterers across Toronto.
Blackbird Baking Co.
Simon Blackwell’s Blackbird Baking Co. is my go-to for a solid French baguette; crunchy, light, with an airy crumb. But why stop there? The bakery masterfully produces equally delectable loaves - using heritage, stone-ground, unbleached flours - as well as focaccias and pastries.
Blackbird Baking Co. has some serious backing; co-owners include David Castellan and Cynthia Leung of SOMA, as well as highly acclaimed chef April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman of New York’s The Spotted Pig. What started as a humble wholesale operation has grown into a well-oiled machine, working around the clock to fill their own orders as well as retail shelves.
Owned by a line of third-generation bakers, Forno Cultura was conceived as their means to preserve their Italian heritage. And while the recipes have been passed down from generation to generation, some of the breads found at this basement operation are deliciously inventive. Their Filone Cacao loaf is among my favourite - a savoury dark chocolate loaf with chunks of bittersweet chocolate folded into the dough.
A second location recently opened in First Canadian Place, a welcome respite from the clutter of fast food chains lining the financial district.
A spinoff of the Terroni family of food establishments, Sud Forno is located a stone’s throw away from their Queen West restaurant. The bakery uses premium grains and flours imported from a third generation, family-run mill in the Marche region of Italy.
Sud Forno’s Italian-style breads yield a crunchy and substantial crust, contrasted by a light and pillowy crumb. Depending on the meal, I sometimes like to eat the crumb (for sopping up sauce) and the crust (to load with butter and use as a makeshift spoon) separately. So, while some people prefer a more balanced loaf, I can appreciate the contrasting textures. One great thing about buying bread at Sud Forno, if you’re part of a smaller household or watching your bread consumption, is the ability to opt for a smaller version of some of the larger, family-size loaves.
A second location is set to open on Temperance Street this Spring.
Mabel’s Bakery and Specialty Foods
Once upon a time, Mabel’s exclusively carried Thuet bread. But after opening its second location on Queen Street West in 2012, the shop brought in a breadmaker to create their own line of breads.
The loaves are baked out of their flagship Roncesvalles shop with local, unbleached organic flour from K2 Mill in Beeton, ON. Mabel’s loaves aren’t particular crusty, but the crumb is nice and open, with a chewy interior.
Prairie Boy Bread
Prairie Boy Bread is more than a bakery. Beyond making fantastic bread, owner Grant MacPherson wants to reconnect people with the “art of eating well”. He does this, among other things, by hosting workshops on sourdough bread.
Prairie Boy’s loaves have a great, crispy crust. While the crumb has large air bubbles, it is a little on the denser side, giving it a satisfyingly chewy texture. The bread has a nicely sour flavour.
Clarke’s Bread - Special Mention
While Clarke’s Bread is a wholesale producer, we would be remiss not to include them on our list. The brainchild of former Blackbird Head Baker, Brenan Clarke, the fledgling bakery is only a few months old as of the writing of this article. The bread is made exclusively from 100% local organic flour from K2 Milling.
Clarke’s breads have a lovely, crispy crust and an open, chewy crumb. A two-man operation, Clarke’s makes some of the most complex and flavourful bread I’ve had in awhile. The sourness is prominent in their baguette in particular, but well balanced. My current favourite is the Toasted Seed Sourdough, which I can eat on its own, with nothing else.
Watch out for Clarke’s Bread; I assure you that you will see more of it pop up around the city soon. In the meantime, check out their Facebook page to see where you can find their bread.
Our own list of bakeries is an essential list, rather than an exhaustive one. Did we miss out on your favourite bakery in the city? Let us know in the comment section below.