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Eric Voss: The Science and Magic of Sourdough Bread Baking (A Minga Community Profile)

Guest post by Serena Tene

Eric Voss’s story is equal parts science and magic.

“My day job is in engineering,” says the novice sourdough bread baker as we sit on a bench just outside the Guelph Farmers’ Market on a cool yet mostly sunny Saturday. “My dad is very much Mr. Science. My mom is a nurse, very warm, great cook. My grandmothers likewise were amazing cooks. They made some of their own bread, not the same style as I’m into now, but that was always a part of what we were doing growing up. We always got together and ate. I have a Ukrainian-German background, so there was no shortage of very good food. That was really formative for me.”

Eric then brings up his job as an engineering program manager again. “My career is high-tech, high-pressure. Lately, the stress has been a bit much at times. I needed an outlet, something to get into to bring me back to a comfortable place; a hobby, but a bit more than that, something where I could really engage.”

So about two years ago, Eric, who lives in Guelph, was drawn to taking butchery classes through Steckle Heritage Farm in Kitchener and Trotters in Guelph. He has clearly grappled with the sensitive issues involved: “If you’re going to consume that kind of food, I think it’s so important to understand where it’s coming from, what’s involved, what kind of life that animal has led, how it was treated. You want the best for that animal. I don’t eat commercial pork from big producers anymore.”

Those workshops were instrumental in getting Eric to think about how we engage with farmers and source our food. But butchery is not generally an activity that one does regularly – a side of pork or beef can last many months – and he wanted to learn other skills. He discovered the Minga Skill Building Hub through Jamie Waldron, the butchery instructor at Steckle, who also happened to be a Minga instructor.

“I saw that Minga had a sourdough course, and I was like, ‘oh wow, I’ve always wanted to do this,’” he says excitedly.

Fast-forward to the sourdough bread-baking course with Richard Priess in Rockwood in December 2017: “I was a little anxious and apprehensive at first. Can I do this? But Richard was great, very engaging. He stressed that this was achievable. He talked a lot about the sourdough starter. The number one question people have is, ‘how do I keep the starter alive?’ At the end of the course, you’re walking out with a fresh-baked loaf that you’ve made, so there’s an immediate sense of accomplishment.”

Then Eric declares: “I have not stopped since. Every week I’ve made bread since then.” He shares his creations with family, friends, and workmates.

I ask him what compels him to bake. “It’s exciting every time! It is a little bit magical, despite the chemistry,” he says with passion in his voice. “I know more or less why it’s happening, the combination of heat, humidity, the salt and how it works against or with the other ingredients. All of that you can reason through and rationalize, you can experiment with how you make your bread, but in the end, you never really know how it’s going to turn out.”

Magic of a different sort occurred a few short months after Eric took the course and embarked on his bread-baking journey. He was reading and learning, exploring and experimenting with different baking methods and techniques, and posting about his creations on Instagram. He and the Minga team were following each other on Instagram, and the Minga team was so impressed by his posts and photos that they invited him to lead three 45-minute workshops on bread making at Taste Real’s Local Food Fest in June 2018 (Minga organized the food re-skilling workshop area at the event). What they didn’t immediately realize was that Eric had himself taken the Minga sourdough baking course only six months before.

“I didn’t want the day to end! It was a rainy, miserable day, but people came out. Every session was full. People were really into it,” he says. In fact, the Food Fest sessions were so successful that Minga has also invited him to assist Richard Priess in upcoming bread making classes.

As he recalls the other re-skilling workshops that were offered at the Food Fest, including mushroom cultivation, cider and sausage making, fermenting, and foraging, Eric observes that “there are a lot of people that are finding that once they are trying these skills again, it’s giving them meaning they may have lost or forgotten about. It touches a deeper sense of reward and happiness that you can draw from. For Minga to enable that is amazing.”

The benefits of his newfound passion are profound: “When I make bread, I’m very focused. It’s all I’m thinking about in that moment… there’s nothing else. And being able to produce bread from simple ingredients, using simple techniques that have been around for thousands of years… to be connected to that is a really amazing thing. There’s a history you’re drawing from.”

When Eric casually mentions towards the end of the interview that the company he works for in Kitchener is located beside a large bakery, I feel that hint of magic, as if the cosmos is smiling and winking at him.


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