Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Meet the Baker: Cliff Leir

I first met Cliff Leir, owner of Fol Épi Bakery ("fol épi" is French for "wild wheatstalk") in Victoria, British Columbia, at the Kneading Conference West 2011 where he gave a talk on building your own bakery complete with a separate mill room and a wood-fired brick oven. Despite his relatively young age (he was then 33), he had already been baking in Victoria for 14 years. He had been at his new location for eighteen months or so.

Fol Épi is located at Dockside Green, a new development in a previously industrial part of Victoria harbor
Cliff explained that he built silos behind his bakery so that he could buy his grain directly from farmers, a setup which benefits both himself and the farmers: he gets a tastier (if sometimes less predictible) product than by purchasing from a distributor and the farmers get a better deal. The only wheat he uses in his bread is organic Red Fife, a heritage grain he buys in Saskatchewan (he gets his pastry flour from Ontario). Since he only had room for a pair of silos, he bakes with two grains exclusively: wheat and rye. He mills his flours himself.
Cliff described how he built his oven with the help of friends and how he learned to dress his milling stones (through Web searches and by attending milling workshops). He explained that he hydrates the wheat before milling (but never the rye) and he talked about developing a tactile feel for the dough (a true self-taught man, he never went to baking school). He shared the plans he had designed for the oven, the mill and bakery. He detailed his initial investment and his current operating costs. Basically he laid it all out for the aspiring baker/entrepreneur, making building and running your own bakery sound both like a huge amount of work and an exhilarating endeavor. I have no doubt both are accurate descriptions.

Cliff Leir's Rye Bread
However since I was not planning on opening (and much less building) my own bakery (at least not in this current life), I would have filed away all this information in my brain under the label "Interesting story" and moved on to the next topic if, at the end of his lecture,  he hadn't brought out samples of his breads. I tasted all of them. All were good but one literally bowled me over. It was a 50% whole wheat with a beautiful crust and crumb. I had never seen a bread with such a high percentage of whole grain and yet such an open structure: it was "long en bouche" as French wine lovers like to say when the taste of a wine remains in your mouth long after you have swallowed. It evoked the rustic fragrance of plump wheat berries ripened in a relentless summer sun with a faint note of roasted hazelnuts and caramelized butter. The lecture ended, the audience dispersed, I went home but I couldn't get that bread out of my mind.

Cliff Leir's 50% whole wheat bread
So when I found out I was going to Victoria, I emailed Cliff and asked if he would be willing to talk to me about this 50% whole wheat bread and maybe share his formula. He wrote back to say that he would be happy to do so but that it might be hard to find a moment as his workdays were always a bit frantic. Indeed the first time I went to the bakery, back in early April, he was in a rush. He showed me around (that was quick as the bakery is tiny) and we agreed to meet again in May since I was coming back to town to visit Diane Andiel.

Red Fife's white flour milled at Fol Épi

Red Fife whole grain flour milled at Fol Épi (see the gorgeous bran flakes!)
The second time, Cliff was just as rushed (he had to feed the starters and finish some chores before getting his younger son from school) but he kindly took the time to sit with me and go over his formula. He also gave me two kilos each of his freshly milled Red Fife all-purpose and whole wheat flours (he mills 100 kg of flour a day, most of which white) so that I could try baking the bread at home. I didn't ask to visit the bakery again (which is why I don't have more pictures to post) as I could see work was proceeding at a frantic pace in the background: pizzas were going in and out of the oven like clockwork and baskets of fresh loaves were constantly beeing rolled to the front.
He told me how he built his first brick oven in his driveway at age 19, how he learned his trade by trial and error, how he started selling bread to his neighbors, then at a farmer's market, how he opened his first bakery (Wildfire Bakery on Quadra Street) with a partner and learned about Red Fife wheat through a Slow Food Canada initiative, how he and his partner parted ways and he spent a few years building his present bakery. For a vivid description of Cliff's journey as a baker from the moment he "discovered" Red Fife, you may want to read Mixing Up Change, the three-part article he wrote for the Baker's Journal: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) as he tells it much better than I ever could. If, like me, you are interested in the heritage grain movement, you may also enjoy reading this article on the Red Fife community by Saskatchewan writer Penny McKinley. It is a measure of Cliff's modesty as an artisan that when I complimented him on his 50% whole wheat bread - definitely the best I have ever sampled in its category - he attributed its taste and beautiful crumb to the flavor and excellent baking properties of the Red Fife...
According to Terra Madre - 1200 World Food Communities, a Slow Food Editore publication dated October 2004, "Today, Red Fife has survived due to the work of only a handful of organic heritage wheat and seed farmers scattered across Canada who have been faithfully growing the wheat to keep it from extinction. Artisan bread made from Red Fife wheat has a yellow crumb with an intense scent of herbs and vegetables colored with a light acidity. The nose has notes of anise and fennel, and in the mouth the bread is unexpectedly rich with a slightly herby and spicy flavor."
Wow, I wish I had thought of all these flavors when I described tasting Cliff's 50% whole Red Fife bread for the first time but really I would have been making it up: I detect neither fennel nor anise although the intense scent of herbs and vegetables may be what I read as the fragrance of wheat berries ripening in the fierce Western Canadian sun. As to spiciness, I don't know, I have tasted many wheats that were way spicier than this one.
I detect no acidity either in Cliff's 50% whole wheat bread and that's because, Cliff's modesty nothwithstanding,  grain only tells part of the story. Controlled fermentation tells the rest. All of his breads are made with naturally leavened starters and the 50% whole wheat results from a process in which a small amount of levain ferments the dough very slowly at a cool temperature over a long period of time. 
Fol Épi uses organic gray sea salt and filtered water (no chlorine).  As explained above, the wheat is freshly milled and the flour is allowed to rest for at least six days (and no more than two or three weeks) before being used for baking.
I was so happy to be going home with some of this wheat I clutched it to my chest like the treasure that it was. We sailed through customs (the customs officer completely lost interest when I told him that we had visited bakers and were only bringing back flours and breads) and once home, I split the bags and sent one kilo of each flour to my friend Gérard Rubaud in Vermont so that he could try the Red Fife  for himself. I baked two big loaves with the remaining flours.

Related post: 50% Whole Red Fife Wheat Bread (baked at home)


  1. Thank you for the excellent profiles of these wonderful bakers. I live in the Victoria area and so inspired reading about these bakers...

    1. Thank you for stopping by! You are so lucky to live in the Victoria area... A beautiful city on a gorgeous island.

  2. We love his baguettes!

    1. I had them. They are good! Cliff told me they were his bestselling bread...

  3. I wonder if it would be possible to get that effect with a different type of whole grain wheat... reading this, together with your previous post, makes me feel like I want to challenge myself with it. does it actually have to be a batard? could it be a round? I think I have actually found an hidden treasure in my apartment: a small electronic wine cellar that we never use. It has enough space for a round proofing basket and can keep the chosen temperature for as long as I wish. do you think it could work? ps: your loaf was actually pretty similar to his. brava!

  4. Hello Barbara,
    Yes, it might work well with another wheat. The challenge would be to find freshly milled flour if you don't have a little mill (I can't recall whether or not you do), including unsifted flour with visible specks of bran. I too have a small wine cellar and we don't ever use it even though we do store wine in it. Maybe we could remove some bottles and some shelves and see if it could be used as a retarder. What a clever idea! As for long vs round, I don't really know whether or not it'd make a difference. The only way to find out is to try both!

    1. can't wait to try! I just need to get some stone-ground whole wheat (do not have mill) and then the experiment is going to start :)

  5. Hello MC,
    I’ve so enjoyed reading your profile of Cliff Leir – such a talented miller, oven-builder and baker – and also very generous, sharing his experience, knowledge, and *delicious* bread at Kneading Conference West:
    “It evoked the rustic fragrance of plump wheat berries ripened in a relentless summer sun with a faint note of roasted hazelnuts and caramelized butter.”
    (Your description of that 50% whole wheat bread’s flavor – it’s one of the most wonderful descriptions of a bread’s flavor I’ve ever read!)

    It was my good fortune to have visited Cliff’s bakery in Victoria earlier last year - Cliff kindly sold me some of his Red Fife flour. The bread I baked with it had such an outstanding, and rich, flavor; you are quite right, that flour is a ‘treasure’. Your photo, capturing the golden bran, brings back lovely memories for me :^)
    I wish I had Cliff’s flour on hand right now, to try making his 50% Whole Red Fife Wheat Bread, as you have so thoughtfully posted the formula...your bake of this bread looks wonderful, and the crumb of your loaf and Cliff’s, virtually identical!

    Thanks so much for writing about what Cliff bakes and what he has accomplished – so amazing!
    :^) breadsong

    1. Thank you, breadsong! Yes, Cliff is indeed very generous and I am very grateful to him for spending some time with me, giving me flour and allowing me to try and reproduce his bread at home. His formula truly works very well and I will try and duplicate it with other heritage grains if I can procure some.
I am delighted you like the description of the bread's flavor but you know: I was on some kind of autopilot. I just closed my eyes, let the gustatory memory wash over me and my fingers went flying over the keyboard! That's how compelling Red Fife's flavor is... ;)
Let me know if you make the bread!

  6. Wow, what a great experience, and what a view to see everyday from the office.

    The bread looks delicious, and the idea of using an old method to create something new is fantastic.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  7. Hello IdaBaker,
    Thank you for stopping by! Yes, isn't it amazing to work in such a beautiful environment? Although from what I have seen, Cliff doesn't seem to have a lot of time for admiring the view from his window. Still he bikes to work every day and the location of his bakery must be a great source of inspiration, pride and joy!

  8. Talk about dedication; he has his own silos! That's just over-the-top. Do you think his mill actually functions to grind his grain both fine and course at the same time, or is he adding back some bran after the mill has done a fine grind?

    Are you aware of a source for Red Fife in the US?

    Nice post, MC.

  9. Thanks, Doc! Cliff mills both fine and coarse but not at the same time. I don't know if he adds back the bran or not. I don't recall him saying that. I wish I knew of a source for Red Fife in the US. I'll be going to the Kneading Conference West in September and I'll try to find out. I'll keep you posted!



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