Cerys Wilson is a baker without an oven. Or at least she was last Wednesday when we talked about her about her new venture the Bread Exchange, an online platform where she exchanges her bread for other people’s skills. “A minor glitch in the system,” she laughs. “They promise me it will be fixed by tomorrow.” For Wilson, who calls herself an independent baker, the oven is a case in point, highlighting both the frustrations and expense that “going it alone” can incur.
In this still-struggling economy, Wilson sees an ever-present need for enterprises like the Bread Exchange to recognize and position craft-based skills as sources of both pride and opportunity: “I’m not asking you what you do, I’m asking you what you know. There’s an important distinction, and one that I think is often overlooked.” Exchanging use of my oven for a loaf of her chewy sourdough, the two of us sat down together and compared loaves (mine yeasty, hers perfect) while I asked her about her lofty ambitions for bread in Montreal.
When did you start the Bread Exchange and why?
I launched the Bread Exchange this past September. I’d been making my own bread for years and sharing some with friends and giving it away as gifts. But having travelled around a lot it was hard to develop a real practice with consistency. After deciding to settle in Montreal – I came here from the UK in 2011 – I took the opportunity to focus on my baking and develop more fully the skills I’d picked up along the way. I apprenticed with a commercial bakery in St Henri for a time and then decided to use those new techniques to build something of my own. It’s an experiment. But so far, it’s worked better than I could have imagined. People seem genuinely interested in the idea of exchange.
Good bread is easy to find in Montreal. Does that work for you or against you?
People in Montreal know what good bread is and don’t have to go far to find it, it’s true. And a lot of people also make their own bread. But the city is very young; it supports independent and creative projects within what I view as a very refined food (and baking) culture. I look at SAT’s FoodLab, for example, and see a real willingness to experiment with food and also the experience of it. These things work in favour of the Bread Exchange. People appreciate and demand quality, but are also curious and game for something new – I hope. I doubt anyone would ever use the Bread Exchange as their sole source of bread – there are too many other good options. But what is interesting is that people might be willing to adopt a new kind of economy– one that trades in skills – that supplements and diversifies their life in the city and, with that, starts them thinking about both their own and others’ time and skills in a new way.
So is the Bread Exchange a lifestyle then?
No! I don’t see it like that at all. But it’s certainly of its time in that it meets a genuine need to recognise and promote skills that have fallen by the wayside in this economy.
Underground economies seem to be proliferating these days. Is that what you’re creating?
We are seeing a lot of ingenuity come out of this recession, a lot of alternative propositions to living, a lot of interesting collaborations. There’s also a lot of playfulness in terms of design. I see the Bread Exchange as another such platform, not for change necessarily, but divergence away from the expected and traditional.
There’s also the move towards home-grown and artisanal products, which demonstrates a growing respect for craftsmanship. But notions of “lifestyle” have, to a certain degree, sidetracked this. The Bread Exchange is grounded in straight-up economic principles of trade and exchange: bread as a peg for other products; bread as a staple to measure other skills against, recognising the time, care and commitment it takes to make good simple bread. I’m not interested in fancy breads chock-full of figs and pistachios – delicious as they may be. I’m interested in bread as something we need, and quality bread as something we should want and value.
Can other people participate in the Exchange in a broader role than just trading for bread?
Yes and no. The Bread Exchange trades in bread. That’s what I do well and what I have to offer. But the equation is expandable, i.e., the Bread Exchange doesn’t always have to equal a + b.
Let’s say, for example, that you already make bread – which you do – and don’t need more. But you can supply farm fresh organic eggs that you bring in from the country. I need those eggs to make my challah, which I then exchange for other products and skills. So we bring in Julia – maybe you know her, maybe I do, maybe she comes to the site on her own. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Julia makes jam, which I can exchange for my bread. You give me eggs; I give Julia bread; and she gives you jam. Now it’s a + b + j and we all get what we want and/or need.
This is like a new kind of social network.
It’s social as well as practical. The Bread Exchange uses the web in place of a physical site – there’s no “bakery” as such, meaning people do miss out on that sensory experience. But as the example above shows, there are other experiences in play. The Bread Exchange deals in real products and actual encounters. The end product is tangible. But as a social network, it’s also a reciprocating system. I’m dependent on the commitment of others and their ability to follow through – in real life – with their part of the deal. Otherwise I’m back where I started, with too much bread on my hands and no French lessons.
What’s your ideal bread exchange?
I would say my ideal exchange hasn’t happened yet. In my mind, it’s one where I assume the role of choreographer or, better yet, cartographer, mapping out a complex sequence of interrelated exchanges that lead back to a single loaf of bread. It’s linear but also extremely intricate, built on a whole lot of people, work and trust.
The best exchange I’ve had so far was with friends of mine who made their own sausages from a local supply of organic pork that they found. I traded a loaf of my challah for three of their sausages, delivering the bread fresh on a Saturday morning to their home. They had bread for their breakfast and I had dinner for the next week. It was great!
How do you see the Bread Exchange developing in the New Year?
Well, I hope more people will start using it, as regular exchanges, or just one-offs. I’d like to bring in more people beyond my immediate network of friends, and in order to generate that, I have to become more business and tech savvy, skills I do not possess in abundance.
Right now I’m working with a designer to produce a new graphic identity for the site and she’s also helping me to produce a map that plots all the many possible exchanges that could happen in the city. That’s a fun project, and also a great exchange for me. I’m very interested in German and Russian breads right now and plan to start making my own beer in the New Year, which I’ll bake with. So if anyone has skills in micro brewing and wants to do an exchange for sourdough beer rye, then please get in touch!
Slice, toast, dip some bread at the Bread Exchange www.thebreadexchange.ca.