The case for artisan bakeries

Yes, I got drawn into the whole sourdough thing too. Our friend Simon gave me a sourdough starter and its alive. You can’t just leave it to wither and die. Instead, you feel bound to feed it (and grow it and make sourdough bread from it. Remember the Furby toys that inveigled children to interact with them – sourdough starter is like that, just not as cute.

So, with the New Zealand government throwing money right, left and centre (or possibly more left and centre) preparatory to elections, I would like to make the case for more money being sifted over artisan bakeries. “Why”, you might ask. It turns out there are a number of good reasons, but first I have to tell you a story.

We got an email from my mother at 6.30am the other morning. The fire alarms in her retirement village were sounding, still sounding when I called her shortly after 7am, and had been sounding since 5.15am. Mum sounded a bit shaken up, as is common when you are woken at 5.15am by an alarm and are not quite sure what you should do. Until very recently, the message from her retirement village was to stay in her room in the event of an emergency until someone came to help her. Retirement villages are now required to build rooms which are fire cells i.e. they will keep someone in them safe for a designated length of time from a fire in the vicinity (apparently 30 minutes). However, new posters had begun appearing on the inside of the village doors, which told the residents to evacuate in case of fire and to follow instructions. They had a little line at the bottom saying to stay in your room if you require assistance, but Mum is perfectly ambulatory.

Therefore, when the siren sounded at 5.15am and a disembodied voice announced “Evacuate the building”, that was what she and the other residents in her facility did. They might not have evacuated at speed – there were the general considerations of finding glasses, deciding whether to take hearing aids, how much clothing was necessary, whether to take a stick, a walker or both, and the overriding situation of being over 80 and thus not particularly fast at anything. They left their rooms and started to migrate towards the lifts – the residents of this 3 storey building are not encouraged to use the staircases because of safety concerns, so the lift is the norm. When they got to the lift they realised that COVID instructions required that only 2 could go in the lift at a time. So they started the lift-aided descent, rather slowly (there was still no sign of staff and the sirens and voice kept sounding). This was going fine until someone who had remembered glasses read one of the ubiquitous lift signs which says, “In case of fire do not use the lift”. Then they headed for the stairs.

I don’t like to think of a group of elderly people, woken from sleep, at the top of the stairs, realising that they couldn’t take their walkers down them and some had not brought their sticks. It is quite amazing that no-one took a tumble on the descent. They reached the ground floor and the next challenge to be faced was, which door could they get out? Would any be open as they are normally locked at night. This decision was thankfully taken from them when, finally, a small, young, unknown female staff member appeared and said “It’s a false alarm you can all go back to bed”.

Back they went, but bed and sleep were no longer an option as the alarms kept sounding, for hours! Immediately after talking with Mum I rang the facility to ask what on earth was going on and when were they going to communicate properly to the residents? That communication took another 2 hours, in the end, but at least I could report back to Mum on my findings. It turned out that the culprit was…a toaster. A staff member was making breakfast in the hospital wing and burned their toast. The fire alarm sounded. They opened the door to let the smoke out but it drove the smoke back in, and through the building, so multiple alarms were sounding in the hospital wing, dementia wing and managed care wing – over 300 residents across these three parts of the facility! The three staff on duty scrambled to deal with the residents and called for backup from other staff, but it must have been pretty chaotic throughout the buildings, and remained so until they finally got the sirens to turn off.

Martin and Gottfried, chefs at the Oberaigen restaurant where I waitressed while living in Kitzbuhel, Austria. On this evening we had the Prince of Jordan for dinner. Clearly smoking and drinking at work wasn’t an issue in Austria in 1988.

So what does this have story have to do with artisan bread? Well, when I worked in Austria in the 1980s, I was most surprised to find that people there don’t have toasters. They don’t typically have them in Germany or Switzerland either, all homes of great artisan bread which is baked fresh every day. Who would commit the crime of toasting excellent bread? Or having a dried out slice of toast when you could have a fresh, warm loaf? So, you see, the answer to not having toast is having artisan bread.

Why am I advocating against toast? My problem with toast is the considerable loss of productivity that I believe is caused by burnt toast activating fire sirens unnecessarily and inappropriately. How many amongst you have burned a piece of toast and set a siren off? How many people have then perched dangerously on a chair, flapping a tea towel at the fire alarm on the ceiling to get it to stop making a noise. Sarah recently had to pay her flatmates off with dinner after waking them at 3.30am with burnt toast. Toast burning incurs cost – I don’t know how many hours of staff time would have been gobbled up in Mum’s retirement village fiasco.

Artisan bakeries have all sorts of other benefits for the community too, beyond productivity. They inveigle people into shopping locally and regularly to get that great smelling, great tasting bread. If you have popped down to the bakery to get a loaf of bread or a croissant, you might grab a coffee in your keep mug, or a bottle of milk and a few bananas from the local store. All these things create the local economic churn that is fundamental to a desirable economy. You might run into friends and neighbours and have a social chat, bolstering your spirits and ticking one of the mental health boxes for the day. If you walked to the bakery, you got some of your steps in too, and perhaps the dog got a walk. It is quite amazing how an artisan bakery can create large realms of good!

This is me at the back of the bread queue in Khorog, Tajikistan. The power had just been taken out by a mudslide up the river so the only fresh bread to be had was from wood fired ovens – the Tajiks cook naan in very pretty beehive shaped ovens. Very shortly after this photo was taken, the locals noticed me and I was ushered to the front of the queue which was very nice, but somewhat embarrassing.

In conclusion, if anyone from an artisan bakery is reading this, feel free to take my line of argument next time you apply for government support. If anyone from government is reading this, please fund fewer bungee jumping facilities and controversial private school projects and funnel more dollars into artisan bakeries. It’s the yeast you can do.

Footnote: Mum’s retirement village responded both on the phone and in writing to my formal complaint, apologised and explained all the steps they were taking to ensure that a similar event didn’t happen at the same place again, or in one of their multiple other facilities. Politicians could take a leaf out of this institution’s book!

Published by janecshearer

I'm a self-employed life enthusiast living in Gibbston, New Zealand

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