Every morning at 7:30, Rick Grahame lights the cedar in the firebox of
his wood-burning brick oven. It’s thick, measuring 18 feet by 18 feet
inside. The sidewalls are six bricks deep, while the arches that form
its roof are also made of brick. They’re stacked on end, one mortared
against the other, in a single layer.
| Debbie Wilson glazes some cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven at Grahame’s Bakery.
Every morning at 7:30, Rick Grahame lights the cedar in the firebox of his wood-burning brick oven. It’s thick, measuring 18 feet by 18 feet inside. The sidewalls are six bricks deep, while the arches that form its roof are also made of brick. They’re stacked on end, one mortared against the other, in a single layer.
“By 9 a.m., the oven is hot enough to bake in,” Grahame says. “The fire is allowed to go out, because the heat captured by the brick is enough to keep me baking all day.”
Along with his sister Debbie Wilson, Grahame is the third generation to work at Grahame’s Bakery, a circa-1885 two-storey building in the former lumber town of Kemptville, Ont. – now a bedroom community south of Ottawa. The Grahames have been part of the business since 1939, when their grandfather started working for owner Bert Frisby.
“Mr. Frisby’s son was supposed to have taken over the business, but he went off to war as a pilot,” Grahame says. “So my grandfather worked there instead. In 1960, he bought the bakery, and we’ve owned it ever since.”
Grahame and Wilson use the same brick oven as their forerunners in 1885.
The cedar that fires it is still piled in a shed at the back of the property. The bakery is in a residential neighbourhood, close to downtown Kemptville – all three or four blocks of it – but nestled among established older homes.
“It is this original brick oven that sets the tone for our bakery and the products we make,” Grahame says. “That’s why we still use the original recipes to make breads, butter tarts, apple fritters and cookies. We make everything the old way, because here at Grahame’s Bakery the old ways have never changed.”
| Rick Grahame removes loaves of bread from his historic bakery’s wood-burning oven.
More than a historic site
Grahame’s Bakery has one of the oldest commercial wood-fired ovens in operation. So the town council and historical society placed a commemorative plaque on the shop’s white clapboard exterior. The Heritage Canada Foundation also spotlighted the bakery during Heritage Day 2009.
Wilson and Grahame treasure the bakery’s legacy. To preserve it, she gave up her career as a fashion designer with Nygard’s and he stopped managing a hay plant out west.
“When our father [Ken Grahame] died in October 2005, we wanted to keep this baking heritage alive,” Wilson says. “That’s why we came back to the bakery, and took over where he left off.”
Grahame’s Bakery might be a throwback, but it’s not a museum. It’s a living, working bakery doing things the way they were done decades ago.
The bakery’s star is the wood-burning oven. It’s built into a brick wall with a big silver rectangular oven door. Marked with the words “MARSH TORONTO,” it’s constantly being opened and closed as Grahame checks the progress of his bread, cinnamon rolls and croissants.
“Things brown up real fast in this oven,” he says. “You have to keep a close eye on it.”
Despite its age and depth, the oven is easy to see into thanks to electric lighting. Inside, it looks like a warm, inviting but low-ceilinged brick room. The firebox and firebox door are on the oven’s right side, with cedar stacked up on an adjacent wall.
While Grahame deftly moves baked goods in and out of the oven using a wooden paddle, Wilson works on cinnamon rolls. When they’re ready, she puts them in the big double-doored wooden proofing cupboard where all the doughs are left to rise.
The sinks, tables and shelves are old but clean. The vintage bread pans are stacked on the left side of the oven, waiting to be filled. And at the other end of the bakery, where customers enter through a side door, the finished products sit in trays with hand-lettered signs, ready to be bought. And bought they are – Grahame’s, a legend in these parts, is not a place where you can find day-old bread; it doesn’t stay in stock that long.
It’s amazing that life is progressing as it has for more than a century at Grahame’s, considering what happened on March 17. On that day, Grahame came to work and looked inside the oven, only to discover that part of the brick arch had collapsed.
“If Dad had been here to see how bad it was, I think he would have said, ‘Shut the doors; it’s over,” Grahame recalls. “It seems that years of freezing at night and heating up in the day, plus ground tamping on the site next door last autumn, had finally loosened the mortar to the point that it didn’t hold anymore.”
But Grahame and Wilson were not going to give up. Instead, they managed to clear up the wreckage and patch the hole in the arch temporarily, until they could find skilled help to rebuild the oven properly.
It wasn’t easy; brick oven builders aren’t common in Canada these days. After much searching, Grahame found an elderly Italian mason who had rebuilt the oven in Ken Grahame’s day. Working together, they went into the shed that covers the oven and removed 30 to 60 buckets of sooty sand that insulated the arched roof.
“We then removed three inches of insulation and the got through to where the hole was,” Grahame says.
Using a home-built wooden arch form – similar to those that raised cathedral arches in medieval Europe – they rebuilt the arches, one section at a time.
“It took 700 bricks to fix the oven,” Grahame says. “Still, considering that we had thought it could take up to 1,200, that’s not bad.” By the end of April 2009, Grahame’s Bakery was back in business.
Barring catastrophe, the existence of Grahame’s Bakery is likely ensured into the 2030s, at least. But what about the long-term future?
“My son Wesley started bringing in the firewood when my father died,” says Grahame. “He’s learning his way around the business, so with any luck he’ll take over from us.”
In an age where people have multiple jobs, and tradition counts for little, the Grahames’ commitment to their bakery goes beyond employment: It’s their gift to the community and Canada’s baking history.
Here, the past not only lives on, but still has a place in the present.
James Careless is an experienced freelance writer with credits at Canadian Grocer, Food in Canada and Western Grocer magazines.
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