The beginning of shelter-at-home felt like New Year’s Resolutions on steroids. It wasn’t okay to have the mindset, “Wow, without my morning commute, I think I’m gonna sleep in a little bit.” No, you had to pickup jogging. And read all of the literary classics. And hold a nightly Zoom call with your entire extended family. Your quarantine wasn’t to be wasted. It was an opportunity to become a better you.
Well, five months later, I just feel proud to still be wearing pants.
One of the surprising hobbies to emerge during this time is a love for making bread. Specifically sourdough. People all around the country are perfecting their loaves. I won’t dive too deep into the history of bread, but worth mentioning, sourdough is the oldest form of leavened bread dating back sometime between 2,000 – 4,000 BC. The first sourdough loaf was likely baked in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East. This land was south of the Black & Caspian seas containing parts of modern-day Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Cyprus. The main setting for most of the Old Testament Bible.
Unleavened bread means it doesn’t rise much higher than a Club cracker. Examples of unleavened breads: Mexican tortillas and Matzo (think Jewish Passover or the bread used at a Church of Christ communion). Leavened is what we think of as traditional bread, aka the kind that rises.
But, surprising to me, our common everyday baking yeast hasn’t been around very long. Those who think Louis Pasteur was a one-hit-wonder (pasteurized milk) have another thing coming when they find out he also discovered how yeast works back in 1859. He studied how yeast “feeds on the starches in flour, produces carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour, then the gluten proteins cause the dough to expand and rise.”
Nine years later, Fleischmann’s® flour was founded. Combine that with the newly invented steel rolling mill and a new era in faster-paced breadmaking was underway.
In the 1900s, more chemicals were added to loaves of bread. Bread became whiter, softer, could last much longer. Flour became heavily processed lacking vitamins and minerals. These new breads were a high-status symbol. The elite in 20th-century society wouldn’t dare be seen with loaves of rye, bran, or sourdough. It’s a view that’s pretty much completely flipped as low-priced white bread is now public enemy No. 1 in the grocery store.
Back to Sourdough
Instead of using baking yeast, sourdough begins with what is called a starter. The starter is a “mix of wild yeast, lactic acid bacteria, flour, and water. During the bread-making process, the starter ferments the sugars in the dough, helping the bread rise and acquire its characteristic taste.” Bakers form a bond with their starter, it’s less of an ingredient and more a member of the family. As Vanessa Hua wrote in her sourdough article on CNN:
“People can get very attached to their starters, forming a bond that lasts through breakups, job changes, and multiple cross-country moves. A friend who forgot his starter had it mailed to him. Another friend fondly remembers the one she kept in her more carefree 20s, a gift from her parents’ neighbor, who’d started it years earlier in another city.
Starters are the gift that keeps on giving. Some starters last for decades in the fridge. This lady in Wyoming is taking care of a 122-year-old starter.
Once you have the starter, there’s no shortage of sourdough bread recipes to choose from in cookbooks or online. One recipe that’s often recommended is from Michael Pollan in his book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” Pots-and-pans-wise, all you need is a dutch oven. From there it’s a lot of trial and error.
But what happens after you get into sourdough bread baking? When you’ve made a few loaves that your wife, husband, roommate says, “Hey, that’s actually really good. You should like sell these?” What comes next?
Enter Douglas Callegario. This is the story of a baker who went from what he describes as an “awful” first loaf to selling sourdough breads out of his house, to now baking over 250 loaves a week for his growing business Nourish Foods. For bread lovers in the Algonquin, Fox River Grove, and Barrington area, Douglas’ work in leavened bread is rising in popularity (bread pun intended) the way a local band gains momentum or how I imagine people once talked about seeing Chris Farley, Tina Fey, or Steve Carell at Second City.
Sure, Nourish Foods is still flying under the radar, orders are done via Google Form and Farmer’s Markets, but it might just be the best bread in the Chicago area.
From Brazil to Algonquin
Douglas grew up in Brazil and developed a love for baking and cooking early on. His grandmother made pasta, mom made bread (although not sourdough). He went to the University of Rio to study a new innovative program focused on food science and the culinary arts.
After graduation, he met his now-husband on a beach in Rio and joined him first in Los Angeles, then they moved to Washington, and around 2016 moved to Algonquin for his husband’s teaching job. Once they settled in, Douglas discovered All Grass Farms, a local farm nearby, and asked if they needed any help.
“When I moved to Illinois, the first thing that I noticed was the farm very close to my house,” Douglas said. “I wanted to learn how food is grown, how animals are raised. I started buying food from All Grass, the milk, the meat. I wanted to learn so I asked to work there as an apprentice. At first, they didn’t have a position for me, but someone dropped out so they brought me on.”
Around this time, about three years ago, his husband bought him the Michael Pollan book. Douglas saw the sourdough recipe and decided he wanted to perfect this process. He needed to get rid of the memory of his first attempt at sourdough back in college.
“I made my first sourdough bread in college as a project. It was kind of an awful bread. I had people mocking me. My friends were mocking the bread, this is an awful bread. I remember that to this day.”
The trial and error process was underway. Douglas was focused on the tiniest details, perfecting the process.
“You go back to the original techniques,” Douglas said. “What brand of flour? The quality of the flour. What’s the humidity of the place that you’re in? The water. The book is very useful to guide you, give you ideas, but it’s very hard to master by yourself. It took me several years of sporadically trying, a couple years of baking bread every single day. The whole technique is very hands-on. It’s much more of a feeling, closer to an art than a science.”
Douglas describes the process in steps, you’re learning a little bit each time.
“First, the most challenging thing is getting the bread to be soft on the inside, crispy on the outside. Texture is the second step. Third step is the appearance. How crispy is the crust, how brown is the crust. Final stage is how to perfect it.”
Douglas started bringing the sourdough breads to work and co-workers asked if he’d make some for them. Co-workers, friends, friends of friends. One dutch oven became multiple. Baking for friends became baking for purchase on Saturday mornings at the All Grass Farm Store. Douglas was trying to balance all of this with working six days a week at the farm, eight hours a day. And for those who’ve worked on or grew up on a farm, you know those eight hour days aren’t easy.
The momentum continued to build. Douglas got the licenses required to bake and sell out of his home. He didn’t set up a fancy expensive website. No venture capital raised. Just a Facebook page. And a Google Form. You place an order, show up for pickup on Thursday. Simple as that.
A look at a few of the different options from the Google Form:
All organic, local, and freshly ground wheat and rye berries, with heirloom and ancient varieties.
Every single bread is naturally leavened with my sourdough starter, fed with 100% rye.
Suburban – Basic Sourdough. Balanced flavor and acidity. Perfect everyday bread. Just filtered water, heirloom wheat and rye berries, and Himalayan salt.
Milkbread – Soft Loaf Pan. Soft and delicate sandwich bread. The best toast, grilled cheese or peanut butter & jelly you will find! (With the farm’s milk and butter, soft bread in a pan sandwich style).
Pumpernickel – This naturally leavened rye bread gets soft, flavorful, and colored only by the addition of blackstrap molasses, cocoa powder, brewed coffee, and star anise. No artificial colorants over here!
Also on the menu: bagels and Brazilian cheese puffs. A brown butter spelt salted chocolate chip cookie. Orange fennel cashews, cinnamon clove pecans, and chipotle lime almonds.
Thursday pickups. Saturday morning deliveries before 9 am when the Farm Store opens. With summer here, Douglas is also doing the Grayslake Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays and the Elgin Farmer’s Market on Fridays. That’s a lot of bread.
“Nowadays I’m making, with farmer’s markets, 250 breads per week.”
Douglas says the challenge now isn’t so much keeping track of the orders, it’s how to maintain the highest quality when you’re making 250 a week instead of 25.
“How do I get the quality that I want, that I need to provide, how do I make it happen when I’m basically working by myself and I basically have to make 50 breads a day. Sometimes I work for 12 hours. I have to deliver. The results are still good, probably still the best you can find in a 50-mile radius. But it’s not the absolute best bread that I can deliver. If I’m not making a high volume, I can make perfect bread every time.”
I saw this commitment to excellence firsthand when me and all the fellow customers one week when we received this email:
First and foremost thank you so much for trusting my work (and using your hard-working money on my business).
I have been growing the number of products, flavors, and most importantly the number of customers I attend. This does not come without some setbacks: I had some inconsistencies with my cookies (too dry), crackers (too soft), and nuts (almost burnt). I am working on my processes (although things keep changing because I keep having to scale up) to make things consistent.
I can’t taste every batch (my cookie intake is already on maximum haha), so I am asking you to tell me how you feel about what you ordered.
I make a promise: whenever you are not 100% delighted by what I cooked, please do let me know. I will give your money back, or issue a credit, or just replace it next week, whatever makes you happy. This also helps me to keep tabs on what is working or not, and to improve my practices. My worst fear is to make you dissatisfied.
I hope you can keep trusting my work and I will keep improving to deliver the best food for you.
The email reminds me of a quote from Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” when Brad Pitt’s character is sharing with his son about one of the all-time great musicians.
“Toscanini once recorded a piece sixty-five times. You know what he said when he finished? ‘It could be better.'”
When a loaf of bread has been made with such careful consideration on every single ingredient, and the process itself has been perfected every day over the span of a few years and, after all of that, there’s still this drive for perfection – even as the order numbers multiply – it’s no surprise when you try this bread and immediately say, “Wow, this is just better.” It’s hard to imagine how it will continue to improve, but I know that it will.
And so maybe all of these newfound hobbies will be one of the biggest positives to come out of this year. If the shelter-at-home chapter leads us to new bakers like this, people selling awesome breads right out of their home, well, then we have a great future ahead. A local bakery on every street.
Over the last several months, I’ve been using the Medium Rare blog with a different format, featuring local restaurants around Chicago and the Chicagoland area. These also, from time to time, drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life. To catch up on some of the posts and read about other great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
To subscribe to Medium Rare via email, just enter your email address in the box below. See you next week!
Filed under: Food Review
Tags: Algonquin, All Grass Farms, baking bread, baking bread at home, Barrington, Brazil, bread, covid19 bread making trend, Douglas Callegario, Fox River, Healthy bread, homemade bread, how to make bread, how to make sourdough, leavened bread, sourdough, sourdough starter, unleavened bread