NOTE: Typepad is confounding all my attempts to place spaces between the paragraphs in this post. Until I figure it out, bear with me. And if anyone has tips on pasting text into a post without the spacing being all messed up, drop me a line. Thanks.
KLue, Issue 100, February 2007
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
Malaysian shoppers are demanding. Just watch them conduct quality control at Bangsar's pasar malam (night market) - sniffing fish, thumping watermelons, snapping beans, poking bread.
'Here in Malaysia, it's the 'poke test',' sighs Mustaffa, a bearded, Father Christmas look-alike Brit who, along with his Sumatra-born wife Mardia, crafts European-style breads at their bakery near Sungai Buloh.
While most of the couple's goods reach customers through the organic foods franchise Just Life, Sundays finds them selling their artisinal loaves in front of Country Farm Organics, concurrent with the pasar malam.
Combining top-quality, natural ingredients and Old World techniques (they mill their own wheat and mix most dough by hand), Mustaffa and Mardia bake preservative and additive-free breads that, with their substantial crusts, ample grain, and chewy texture, would be at home in bakeries from Paris to Budapest. Yet in Kuala Lumpur, where 'bread so good it can be eaten on its own' is a sales pitch rather than a give, those crisp-crusted loaves are a hard sell.
Five years ago the couple sold baked goods, along with homemade cheeses, from their own cafe-bakery in Bukit Ramah-Putra. Though locals loved Mardia's sugary sweets (she started out making highly-praised kuih lapis, a multi-layer Indonesian favorite) their nourishing breads went unsold because they didn't squish when squeezed.
'We were literally throwing out loaves everyday,' remembers Mustaffa.
They let the cafe's lease go. Then, after a chance conversation with a Just Life staffer led to a tasting for the store manager, their goods wound up on the franchise's shelves. With a growing base of customers looking to eat their way to health, Just Life has proven the perfect venue not only for Mardia and Mustaffa's grain and seed-packed sprouted breads, but also for their recently developed takes on traditional Malaysian foods, like pandan and spinach mantou (Chinese steamed bread). Still, winning over the general public remains an uphill battle.
Modifying their bread to suit local tastes without compromising on wholesomeness has been as much of a challenge for the two as adapting recipes written for dry northern climates to Malaysia's humid heat. Natural yeast, for instance, trumps commercial bread raisers (which can contain chemicals), but makes bread sour - a quality as shunned in KL as it is beloved in San Francisco. Experimentation proved that raising natural-yeasted bread in the refrigerator slowly, overnight, rather than at room temperature, cut its tartness. And experience has proven that simply dropping the 'sourdough' label from their product descriptions increases sales.
On a recent Sunday morning Mardia and Mustaffa's bakery - a neat, one-room brick building with sturdy wooden crossbeams and a cement floor - is a Zen-like space of quiet concentration. Hot loaves, lightly seasoned mini pizzas, and hamburger buns cool on a shelf while mounds of rising dough nestle under tea towels. As the sweet scent of freshly milled wheat mingles with the enticing aroma of baking bread, Mardia breaks eggs for orange cakes while Mustaffa prepares a basic dough.
Into a stainless steel mixing bowl go a kilo of Finnish unbleached flour and ten grams each of Himalayan rock salt and fresh yeast. After adding water (exactly how much depends on both flour and the day's humidity) he mixes the ingredients, first with a spatula and then with his hands, to form a sticky lump. Most of Mustaffa's bread dough is minimally kneaded - just ten seconds, three or four times over ninety minutes - but this one, for French baguettes and fougasse, a leaf-shaped loaf, must be brutalized so that it takes on the maximum amount of air.
Mustaffa pulls the dough from the sides of the mixing bowl, lifts it high, and throws it down on the worktable, gently stretching and rolling it before repeating the process. Soon the dough is sticking more to itself than to the bread maker's hands, and then it's floured, formed into a round, and left to rest under a piece of linen. An hour later, smooth as the proverbial baby's bottom and almost doubled in size, it's ready to be shaped into loaves. After about fifteen minutes in the oven baguettes and fougasse emerge crispy and authentically chewy.
Asked to name his favorite bread, Mustaffa demurs. 'I don't really bake for myself much,' he says. 'We eat whatever bread happens to be around.'
Bread gourmands they may not be, but there is no doubting Mardia and Mustaffa's dedication to the art. When not up to their elbows in dough they're testing recipes, developing new techniques, and expanding the range of ingredients grown in their organic garden. In a corner of the bakery sits a half-built wood-fired brick oven. When it's finished, Mustaffa's loaves will emerge from its high, uniform heat with evenly gold, crackly crusts.
They will, no doubt, fail the poke test.
Find Mustaffa and Mardia every Sunday from 4pm in front of Country Farm Organics, Lower Level, Bangsar Village Shopping Center. www.bakerette-cafe.com. Special orders welcome.
Update 26/02/07: The wood-fired oven is now up and running, but the relocation of the Bangsar night market has resulted in a huge drop in foot traffic past Country Farm Organics. As a result, it's no longer worthwhile for Mardia and Mustaffa to make the drive from Sungai Buloh every Sunday. The upshot? Don't look for them in Bangsar.
Fortunately, the couple's business with Just Life is booming. In addition to supplying the chain's stores they are now also baking for Just Life's (Ikano Power Center) recently-opened vegan cafe. You may even find them there on occasion giving demonstrations.
Special orders for their European-style artisinal loaves - now even more delicious, thanks to that wood-fired brick oven - are still very welcome. Visit their website, give them a call, place an order, and they'll work with you to figure out a mutually agreeable pick-up/drop-off location.