A beautiful mix of art, science, and a bit of magic
By Alex Smith
Wild fermentation is an intriguing term. Setting aside the fact that it could be a great name for a band or a party game, it turns out to be the source of some of humanity’s best creations. Fermentation is the chemical process that gives us many of our favorite foods and beverages. Cheese, bread, beer, wine, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchee are just a few examples. The process is a complex mix of art, science, and a bit of magic. Since I’m far from an expert on the topic, I spoke with a lady who’s spent years studying and experimenting: Sophie Williams of Raven Breads.
“I started this business with a lot of idealism,” Sophie explains. “At first I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.” Hearing her talk about her bread making process provides a bit more detail. On its surface, bread seems relatively simple. Flour, water, salt, and yeast combine to make a dough that’s then baked to form a tasty and nutritious loaf.
But Sophie takes a different approach that presents a number of challenges as well as a completely unique product. Let’s start with the yeast. Instead of a commercial strain of yeast that typically includes a single isolated and otherwise sterile culture, all Raven breads are sourdough. Instead of one type of yeast, these breads can contain hundreds of microbial cultures. The “sourdough starter” is what’s known colloquially as a SCOBY – a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The yeast makes the bread rise and creates tiny pockets of air while the bacteria helps to add aromatics to create a uniquely delicious flavor.
This unique flavor and texture is truly something you must taste to appreciate. New customers have often either never tried anything similar, or have only encountered such things in Europe where dense sourdough breads are more common. But Sophie has converted several customers who have vowed to never eat any other bread (although she suspects they may be sneaking a baguette on the side here and there). Sophie has been called a “rye bread proselytizer” for her insistence on having people at least try her bread, especially at the farmers market.
Bread isn’t the only delicious fermented baked good you can get from Raven Breads, either. Her malted chocolate chip cookies are a lucky accident that came from a multiplication error resulting in four times the intended amount of butter added to the recipe. The huge, flat, and satisfyingly crunchy (yet still chewy) treats are a favorite at both Bellingham Farmers Markets – Saturday in downtown and Wednesday in Fairhaven.
Going beyond fermentation, there’s a lot that makes Raven Breads unique. The ingredients she uses are another example. “I’m very thoughtful about every ingredient I put in my products,” Sophie says. She chooses ingredients based on flavor and buys from people she knows personally whenever possible. For spices and seeds, she chooses organic sources if she doesn’t know someone growing them. Largely, though, she’s sourcing locally. Some of the grains she uses are grown in Lynden, dairy comes from Twin Brook Creamery, and eggs from Broadleaf Farm. She even harvests fruit for pastries from neighbors who have an excessive bounty. Drawing on connections from her years working in agriculture, she’s able to source the best ingredients and sell through delivery services like VIVA Farms and Growing Washington. She’s also found homes at Primer Coffee, Bellingham Cider Co, and Café Velo.
Beyond just getting a great product, though, buying bread from Sophie supports a dedicated member of the community. She clearly loves what she does and is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for a small business owner. A large part of her desire to start the business came from food systems ideals. “When I started making bread, not many people were talking about grains. But it’s a huge amount of the calories we consume.” Now more people are recognizing the importance of grains, and Raven Breads is on the cutting edge. Even beyond the product itself, Sophie seeks to make change in the community. She delivers orders by bicycle and even packs her entire booth for the Saturday market onto a bike trailer each week. This dedication to the craft is hard to appreciate for those of us who wait for the sunrise to awaken. But even on the cold winter days when most of us are drinking toasty beverages to stay warm indoors, this woman is riding around slinging loaves to devout customers.
It’s not common for a small business owner to have the level of dedication that Sophie has. Her love of the craft is striking. From the sourcing of products to the science and art of fermentation to the physical act of making the bread, she’s devoted in her mind, body, and soul. You can see for yourself by visiting the farmers market. Just keep in mind that even at the opening bell she’s probably been awake for 6 hours and ridden 5 miles. An easier window into Sophie’s world is through her newsletter. You can subscribe or find prior posts on the Raven Breads website.
Raven Breads isn’t a normal business. It’s a business founded on principles, philosophy, and quality ahead of profit. When you buy Sophie’s baked goods, you don’t just get a great, dense savory loaf or a sweet (but not too sweet) pastry. You support all the other businesses she’s sourcing from. You support farms that are growing grains in our back yard. You support a lady who’s willing to deliver bread in the sideways November rain with a smile. It’s not easy to consistently act in line with our values, so it’s nice to be able to support a person and a business that is, in the easiest way possible: by eating great food.