For a bakery that is less than two years old and sells only three kinds of bread at $10 a loaf, Transilvania Peasant Bread in Vancouver has created a solid following.
“This has been fantastic so far,” says Florin Moldovan, owner and sole employee of the 500-square-foot Kitsilano-area bakery. “My customers really want me to succeed and even the neighbouring businesses keep checking to make sure I am happy. The media attention has been amazing, too.”
With a degree in computer science and well-paying job in printing and publishing, Moldovan moved to Canada nine years ago from the Transylvania area of Romania.
“Just like everyone else coming from Europe, I could not find the kind of bread I was used to, so I started to learn to bake at home,” he says as if it were quite ordinary for a 30-year-old man to start tinkering with baking.
Soon the scientist in Moldovan took over and the tinkering became an obsession. Books about baking, sourdough and wood-burning ovens covered his desk. Phone calls to grandmother Victoria in Romania dwelled on what exactly it was that she did every week to cause four or five huge, delicious loaves to emerge from her wood-burning brick oven.
“As a kid, I couldn’t care less how she did it, but now I was obsessed,” laughs Moldovan. “I learned about sourdough and wild yeast and various bacteria. The microbiology of baking is fascinating.”
But science has not affected the artisan roots of Transilvania. Everything in the unpretentious shop speaks of rustic simplicity. On the untreated wood counter is a wooden cutting board and, on it, a warm loaf covered with a hand-woven linen cloth. A large bread knife is ready so that Moldovan can cut a slice for a customer to taste. On the plank shelves, chunky four-pound and two-pound loaves stand lined up on end like pieces of pottery. Brown paper bags, a cardboard box for the money and an old radio playing CBC complete the picture. The big round mound of an oven is in plain view and the simple tools of wood-burning brick-oven baking hang on the wall from large nails. This is not a sleek, designer-created rustic look. This is the real thing. For the customer, time stands still for the short, fragrant moment of daily bread shopping.
The atmosphere is authentic but Moldovan’s focus has been consistently on the bread. Reading about wood-burning ovens lead him to Alan Scott’s website where Moldovan learned about an oven-building event Scott was to lead in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Moldovan contacted the owner of the soon-to-be-built oven and ended up taking a week off work to participate.
“I met some really interesting guys there,” says Moldovan. “Two drove up from New Mexico, some from Ontario, some from Vancouver Island. Later, one of them e-mailed me and said I should participate in the Summerloaf baking competition in Portland, Oregon. I took another few days off work, baked a few loaves, drove to Portland and entered my loaves. I won in the yeast bread category.”
The next victory came at the 2005 Wellness Show in Vancouver, where Moldovan won in the whole grain/multigrain category.
“I started to think that maybe I am quite good at this,” says Moldovan. “So we decided with my wife that I should go for it. We can afford to keep it going for a couple of years, even if it does not make money.”
The bakery has not only covered its costs, but Moldovan “takes home a little extra every month.”
As luck would have it, an existing bakery with a wood-burning oven became available and Moldovan moved in. First he made only one kind of bread, the four-pound Peasant Bread for $10 per loaf. It is the closest to the bread his grandmother used to make. But because many people were buying only half of a loaf, Moldovan started baking a two-pound loaf as well. Next, customers started asking for a rye bread and after some experimentation, a four-pound rye loaf was on the shelf. The latest addition, a sprouted wheat loaf, was introduced this spring.
Moldovan starts baking at 6:30 am and the first batch is ready at 11 am. Around noon, he starts the second batch that will come out at 6 pm. The evening batch is always for the morning sales, because Moldovan ages both the rye and the sprouted wheat, which he bakes on alternate days. The oven has room for about 20 two-pounders at a time. A friend who has apprenticed with Moldovan takes over one day a week to give him a day off.
So it seems that both baker and bakery are at capacity.
“The bigger demand is definitely coming,” says Moldovan. “I could probably fit a third bake in for now. In the long run, maybe another oven, another location. I don’t know. Right now, I am just taking it easy and enjoying myself. I don’t want to grow too fast and start cutting corners with the quality. But I can see this growing.”
Moldovan is clear on some aspects of the future growth.
“I think that what really makes an artisan bread is that one person makes it from scratch to finish. I don’t want an assembly line. Often, when you grow and you get more ovens, you have some people shaping, some loading the ovens. That’s not what I want. I want four people, each with his own oven and he does everything, even the cleaning. I think it will be possible.”
Readers of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight weekly sure hope so. They voted Transilvania’s bread as number four in the Best Bread category in the annual Golden Plate Awards. Not a small feat for a newcomer that produces only two dozen loaves a day.
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