If you live anywhere in the vicinity, you’ll know about Old Church Bakery. Their sourdough breads are exquisite, and creative. And happily, they have expanded to also make other baked delights. I was lucky enough to sit down with OCB owners Holly Sobering and Julie Ellis at the bakery, and asked them five questions…
1. How did Old Church Bakery get its name?
Holly: Larry Peters started the bakery in 2009, in the old church that he and Mitch lived in. So, he named the bakery after the old church! The church used to originally be at the corner lot where Kinder Korner daycare is today. It had gone through many different denominations — Lutheran, Mennonite, think it might have been United but I’m not sure. Then Larry and Mitch bought it and moved it to their property outside of Mitchell. Julie came to work with Larry in 2010.
Julie: He was pretty hard on me, he was so passionate and detailed about the bread —
(Our conversation is interrupted by the distinct sound of crackling coming from one of the ovens.)
H: That’s the best sound!
J: Me and Larry used to say “the bread’s singing to us!”
H: Steinbach people like their bread to be light, but it’s really meant to be dark. When you bite into a crust with that dark colour it prepares your palate to for the other flavours in the bread. You want that ridge to be black!
J: We’re a part of everyone’s day, the part they look forward to. People that come to us for bread obviously care about what they eat because they’re paying more for it. I love that we know people’s lives, we have one customer comes in the same time every week, Holly comes in five minutes later, we know his wife, she’s expecting, he keeps us updated…
H: Kinda like Cheers, I feel like Norm.
J: I love that Holly’s daughter works here. I love bringing my son Otto here, I love that he sees a bunch of strong women working here.
H: I’ve had customers say it almost feels like therapy coming in, the work is so meaningful…beyond bread.
2. I follow you on Instagram, and I see posts about some of the experimental breads you’ve created — by the time I come in, they’re gone!
H: Turmeric has been our biggest seller at the St. Norbert market. Stinging nettle, millet and beer (Fort Garry Dark Coffee, a seasonal beer). Butternut squash and dried cherry sourdough…sweet pototo dill sourdough…
J: Usually when I’m falling asleep or am just waking up, that’s when ideas come to me. Then I come in and experiment.
H: The turmeric was one of those!
(At this point a customer comes in to show off their baby, because that’s just the kind of place that Old Church Bakery is.)
3. What kind of feedback do you get at markets?
J: The number one thing I hear is “I ate that whole loaf at once” — I hear that ALL the time.
H: Usually it’s also been that they haven’t been able to eat bread in ten years and this bread they can eat, it doesn’t hurt their stomach.
4. Can you talk a little about feminism and empowerment and sourdough?
J: Even still, the culinary world is such a man’s space — men are “chefs” and when a women is a cook or baker it’s just “cute”. For example, people hear that I’m a baker and they say, “Oh so like cupcakes and cookies?” But baking is a hard job! In the 80’s and 90’s, women were so disrespected in restaurants. There’s a change happening, but there’s no change really happening with women being in the workplace. Men are so in that space and I guess it’s our job to change that. It’s my dream for young women to feel like this is GREAT what you’re doing — it’s significant, it’s not just “a fun little job that you do” — try saying that to a construction worker.
H: Even just having a place like where our workers feel safe — not stared at, touched, or hit on — a safe space for women, and that for me is huge.
5. My next question touches on Mennonite food… and memories of Mennonite food. Can you speak to that?
J: I actually have a good one for that, which is surprising because I’m not a Mennonite. There’s this feeling that because we’re in Steinbach we often have to create Mennonite desserts, but there’s something about it that I really love, when someone comes in and they’re like, “I had this paska and it was the exact the same as my oma’s, it brought me back to her kitchen when she was pulling it out of the oven, she passed away last year and I never got the recipe.” When we can re-awaken memories, that is so cool, I love that.
H: At home, I make all my grandma’s sommerborscht. Before she passed away, she had in her freezer this combination of sorrel, green onions, all together, so all you would do is first have your meat in the pot, add your water, potatoes, then a scoop of this — and I had that in my freezer ’til the 90’s — beet greens, sorrel, was it dill? Oh, and fliesch perishky, that was my favourite. My kids like perogies and cream sauce — schamuntfatt, right? Oh, and another thing! My grandma always made these amazing boiled potatoes — and I couldn’t figure out what made them taste so good — I couldn’t duplicate it! So one day I asked her, “How do you make you make your boiled potatoes just so, so good?”
(I’m leaning forward in my chair, eager to hear the secret. The phone rings. Julie and I wait with bated breath, eyes on Holly as she speaks on the phone. She returns and continues…)
H: Okay, so you get your water boiling first, salt it, and then add your potatoes once the water’s boiling. The potatoes end up firm but the texture is so soft and smooth! They seem to need that shock. It’s often the process that affects the food — like the bread. Then we’d save the leftover potatoes for cinnamon buns, put them in the dough. Okay and roll kuchen — but done the yantizied way — a little more crispy and thin — and we also have it with a chocolate sauce, like it drips everywhere, it’s a mess, so good.
Bonus Question: What’s your favourite item at here at Old Church Bakery?
J: The croissants! Because when I started, Larry had only a couple of breads, but there were no pastries. And one day I got really into reading up on croissants and so those I taught myself how to do, and when they worked out and were so gorgeous I felt incredibly proud. It was the first time in my life that I felt like hey, I can be really good at something. So I just love the croissants.
H: Bordelaise bread right now, but I also like the hand pies, particularly Saskatoon hand pies. Bordelaise because I can use it for so many things, whenever I go anywhere, I bring that with me — you can grill it — it’s special, it has such good flavour and texture.
J: I always take home the whole wheat or the pecan raisin breads…
(By now I’ve stopped typing, entirely caught up in warm conversation. That’s just the experience of being at Old Church Bakery. Currently in my house: turmeric sourdough, and pumpernickel made with coffee. It’s amazing.)