Travel and bakeries go hand in hand.
Food for the soul, Cape Breton style.
I’m a bakery girl. Always have been. It’s in my blood. Growing up on Cape Breton Island, I was surrounded by some of the best bakers in the world. What the community may have lacked in material resources it made up for in terms of creativity, generosity, and hospitality. I’ve never not known that the best way to show happiness, pride, congratulations, welcome, contrition, support, grief, or sympathy is to roll, knead, whisk, and bake.
My childhood was dominated by homemade bread, giant soft molasses drop cookies known as “Fat Archies”, chocolate-coconut-oatmeal no bake ”Spider Cookies”, cinnamon buns, gingerbread cake, oatcakes, date squares, brown sugar fudge, banana bread, apple crisp, shortbread snowball cookies, and fuarag – an olden Scottish Gaelic dish of stiff whipped cream and toasted fine oats, with good luck tokens of rings and coins hidden inside. And there were biscuits.
A biscuit said a lot about a person. Whole wheat biscuits never really turned out right, nor did biscuits that were previously frozen. Woe to the oblivious women who showed up with either as a donation to the church bakesale. “Of course, all she brought were some biscuits that had been frozen” was the only sneer needed to communicate everything that you needed to know about "she" – her wanton ways, a work ethic found lacking, or an inherit stinginess (“Her Aunt Y was like that too, always showing up with whole wheat biscuits”)
By contrast, good biscuits made up for a myriad of character flaws. It seemed an inability to remember choir schedule, dress your kids properly, or keep your hand out of the community centre’s accounts could all be (somewhat) forgiven if you were a good, reliable, provider of delicious biscuits.
Bakeries and backpacking.
As a traveler in my 20s, with a miserly budget of about $35 a day to travel Europe, I took absolute solace in visiting a bakery. It became my refuge if I were stressed, frustrated, homesick, or simply in need of an affordable treat. Bakeries were also my introduction to culture and cuisine. I couldn’t afford Irish stew and Guinness, but I could manage a loaf of soda bread. An unexpected 30 minutes in Brussels was celebrated with a waffle and a view of Grand Place. A mysterious line and an unmarked white van at Honolulu’s Swap Meet resulted in the my first- and still the best – malasada experience I’ve ever had.
Bakeries were also a useful means of coin consumption. It seems like ancient history now, but just before the Euro came out, travelers were left to juggle multiple currencies and coinage. Bills were easy enough to manage, but coins were another matter altogether. And I had nothing but coins! I had previously worked at a student centre in England and the departing students had left fistfuls of 5 and 10 cent pieces from countries around Europe. Mason jars of coins lined the shelves of the housekeeping department and, when I left to travel, the jars were mine to bring along. Talk about weighing down a pack! In Paris, I paid a highly unimpressed hostel with 1 Franc coins, while an apple crepe was purchased down the street in 10 cent pieces. I did a great job of using up these coins – my last one cent pieces were carefully counted out to buy a turnover in the train station before moving on to Italy.
Bakers, bread, and some food for thought.
But more than anything else, bakeries lead me to connect with people; like the jolly woman at “my” bakery in Paris where I bought madelines by the bagful (its only 2 minutes from the Louvre, but I’m not telling!) I loved bonding with sales girls as I’m convinced to add just one more delicacy to the box -or the flirtatious wink from the elderly baker when I tell him that his is the best bread I’ve ever had. In Bordeaux, I visited a bakery just before closing time and I picked up some humble fare – a pain au chocolate for my dinner and a demi-baguette for the next day. The kindly proprietress slipped two extra croissants in my bag. As I protested in French that they’d only go straight to my hips, she smiled and shrugged, as if to say that it was a small price to pay for the consumption of croissants. And she was right.
Show me a bakery tucked around a corner, where the owner seems to know everyone who comes through the door, where the staff look like they actually eat the products they sell, where the displays are humble but the smell brings you to your knees.
This is where I want to be. I’ll trust these people on sight and they’ll have me as a loyal customer - the kind who never fails to drop in, even if years might pass between visits. Bakers are good people. They are the heart and soul of a community. They make and share bread, which is one of the oldest languages on earth.
Bakeries Worth Visiting
Queen of Tarts – Dublin, Ireland
Homely Maid – Eastbourn, England
Ted’s Bakery – North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii.
Scone Witch - Ottawa, Canada
Shining Waters – Mabou, Nova Scotia, Canada
Aucoin’s Bakery – Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, Canada. Any store worth its salt in Inverness County will sell “Cheticamp bread”.
Fortress Louisburg – National Historic Site on Cape Breton Island, Canada. Go for the fresh baked bread from the wood ovens and for the spiced bread pudding cake in the soldier’s café.
Café Concerto – York, England. Technically a café/bistro, it’s their bread pudding that you’re after here.
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. What's your favourite treat to pick up at a bakery?
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