Red Rooster Bakery

🕔Dec 03, 2008

It’s a typical Friday morning for Roman and Monika Muntener. Up since dawn, they are watching the first rays of sun slant through the evergreens on their property as they enjoy a breakfast of fresh bread from their bakery with raspberries from the garden.
“We are bread people,” Monika tells me as she butters a toasted slice of rum-soaked fig and aniseed sour-dough. “We have bread three times a day.”
By 7:30 the couple is working in the bakery, Monika mixing up dough and Roman filling the room with the smell of wood smoke as he lights a fire in the stone masonry oven. The Red Rooster Artisan Bakery owners will work until dusk preparing roughly 300 loaves for tomorrow, when they rise at 5 a.m. and load their wares for the farmers’ market.
It’s a labour of love, says Monika—this quest to live a simpler life that brings them closer to the land. Then she laughs and admits that the scales often tip more toward labour.
In the peacefulness that surrounds the 47 acres where the couple bakes, raises horses, keeps chickens and tends an impressive garden, it’s hard to believe we are only 20 minutes from Prince George.
Originally from Switzerland, Roman and Monika travelled here in 1980 and stayed on the same property, visiting friends they had met in Atlin. It was here that Monika discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s only son, Mirco, and they returned to Switzerland, vowing to eventually return and complete their travels.
Five years later they were back, finding a “for sale” sign on the property. “By that time we didn’t have to think very long,” Roman says. They bought the land and began building their life here.
Roman started the Prince George Farmers’ Market 13 years ago and today remains a director. Until 2004, Monika baked and sold bread she made using a wood oven in her small kitchen. Then, following a two-week workshop with masonry oven guru Alan Scott in California, Roman built the 400-square-foot bakery with its seven-ton brick oven, which took two months to complete and takes up roughly a quarter of the bakery’s floor space.
The oven—which consumes about nine cords a year of beetle-killed pine harvested from the property—isn’t common. Roman counts on his fingers: four in the Lower Mainland, one in Salmon Arm, one in Whitehorse; his, as far as he knows, is the only one in northern BC. The oven produces 24 to 30 loaves at a time, with six batches being prepared on an average Friday.
The skill required to successfully bake a simple loaf of bread—not to mention master the dozen recipes Monika has developed and regularly creates—isn’t something to be taken lightly. Chemistry combines with the changing environment to create a delicate balance that Monika regularly adapts her recipes to, putting the “art” into artisan baking.
For example, sugars from the fruit in the fig and aniseed bread change the dough’s chemistry, so Monika adds the figs later to prevent the enzymes from tampering with the fermenting process. Temperature, humidity and air pressure all play their part in tinkering with the outcome, and Monika responds to changing climate by adjusting water temperature and quantity. On exceptionally hot days, she stores dough in a cooler environment.
Although the consumer isn’t likely to notice the difference, no two batches are ever identical. “When you look at what you do and at the end what you’re eating it’s so totally different. It always amazes me—it’s almost magic,” Monika says, adding: “And it just tastes so good.”
Juggling mixing and baking requires a tight schedule, and Roman works along with Monika to have the oven ready at just the right temperature. He lights it early in the morning, with the fire dying to embers by early afternoon. By evening, the bricks radiate heat at an even 550 degrees Celsius, ready for crusty breads like baguettes, which only bake for 15 minutes.
The following day, when the oven sits at about 350 degrees, Monika will bake denser breads like pumpernickel for longer periods—about three hours. Even two days later, the oven’s bricks still emanate heat.
“This is something we can do together and that was part of the whole idea—that we’d do it together,” Roman says about the quality time the pair spends either in the bakery or on its adjoining deck, reading books and enjoying the fruits of their labours. “It’s always fun to have a fresh loaf of bread, a glass of wine and some cold cuts.”
Idyllic as it sounds, the Munteners struggle in the face of changes in food production. Small-scale agriculture, like the organic farm down the road, is increasingly disappearing; as well, food safety regulations prevent them from using ingredients produced on their own property.
With no local grain production, the couple uses organic grains shipped from Saskatchewan and makes their own flour using a small stone grinder in the bakery. Rising fuel costs and the grains’ increasing scarcity (as farmers switch to less labour-intensive corn production, which is then sold for use in ethanol and biofuels) has driven Red Rooster’s grain costs up 79 percent over the past year.
Monika spends a minimum 40 hours each week baking—“not including cleanup,” adds the flour-dusted baker. The 300 loaves produced each week sell for $4.50 apiece. It doesn’t take much to do the math and realize that the couple is working hard for much less than their time is worth.
Instead, they work for the satisfaction of producing a staple product and one of the world’s original prepared foods. Dating back to prehistoric times, bread was first produced in Mesopotamia with the original flatbreads. Today, while most North Americans satisfy themselves with a desecrated version of the original recipe that includes preservatives and incomplete grains, the Munteners pride themselves on producing traditional European sourdoughs that are still based on three basic ingredients: flour, salt and water.
“We cannot live on Wonder Bread—there’s just no way. I’d get a return ticket back home,” Monika says.
Far beyond just putting bread on the table, for the Munteners the process represents self-sufficiency and a return to traditional values. From the wood that fires the stove to the excess grain that feeds their chickens, their business connects them to the land—as well as to one another.
“It’s part of the lifestyle. It’s very satisfying because it answers a basic need for food, and bread is one of those foods that have been around for I don’t know how many thousands of years. It’s something that connects you with the soil,” Roman says.