Keeping culture alive

How the Montgomery Inn brings people together over bread
Naomi Szeben
September 12, 2018
Written by
Chef Thorsen Pannek is proud of bringing the Montgomery Inn and George Brown College’s culinary arts program together.
Chef Thorsen Pannek is proud of bringing the Montgomery Inn and George Brown College’s culinary arts program together.
The wood-fired outdoor oven outside the Montgomery Inn Museum is a 19th century tool used to teach 21st century students.

As the oven is blazing, the students are learning to make a range of yeast-free artisanal loaves by hand. If it weren’t for the museum’s volunteers, and a traditionally-trained chef’s know-how, this class on wood-baked bread would never have come to pass. This course on bread isn’t the Montgomery Inn’s only link between bringing people together over its kitchen: The people working behind the scenes have a way of not just making the past come to life, but bringing education to future generations.

Chef Thorsen Pannek, has more than twenty years of experience in baking traditional loaves using whole grains. He was trained in Hamburg, Germany where as an apprentice, he learned how to grind flour in a stone mill and bake bread using whole grains from local farmers.

Set up in the wood paneled kitchen, with students lined up along the length of the long pinewood table, “Chef Thor” is in his element, teaching today’s students the ancient craft of wood-baked bread.

Why teach in a working museum kitchen, and not at the well-equipped George Brown College? Pannek found a unique partnership that paired old with new. “I was actually interested in the wood-burning ovens themselves.” A friend of Pannek’s referred him to Montgomery Inn’s “INNovators” as the volunteers are called.

“So I went, and I met the co-ordinator,” recounts Pannek, “and there are really wonderful people here. They bake once a week for the farmer’s market, they sell bread and they take care of the oven.”

Montgomery Inn is a time capsule of early nineteenth century Canada. It’s easy to see how its old-world charm had won over the chef, with its meticulous attention to period details and a welcoming, warm environment. The proceeds from the bread sold at the farmer’s market supports activities, like the Youth Food Project and the museum’s restoration and repairs.

“I did some training for the INNovators,” adds Pannek. “I’ve done one or two private workshops, basically, with some people that I knew, then I pitched the idea to my boss: It would be a great partnership to connect those two, to do off-site wood oven classes for George Brown College, because it’s very unique.”

The partnership fills a much-needed gap. The sourdough bread baking class is fitting for the period, and satisfies the current interest in working with natural, and gluten-reduced breads. Lauren McCallum, the program director, is thrilled with the partnership. She feels it is in keeping with the tradition of the Montgomerys, who had a 400-acre farm as well as an inn during the 1800’s. The nearly 180-year-old building has seen many iterations, first as a family farm turned rental farm, then an inn, later a church and finally, a museum.   

McCallum recognizes how bread can be a bridge between communities and also served as a historical staple in colonial kitchens. What better way to teach people about culture or history than by breaking bread with them? She is particularly proud of a youth group initiative that introduced different cultures to each other through something nearly universal: Freshly baked bread.

“Breaking Bread was a partnership with the Toronto Ward Museum. It was an annual series that they run. And it’s usually a close, cultural perspective of one cuisine, with one culture, and they asked if they could do this with Montgomery Inn, with their culinary arts project,” explains McCallum.

“Because our youth are from various cultures, we didn’t feel that representing one type of food would cut it, and since we have bread as a theme throughout the inn, we knew that each could speak to the breads of their culture.” McCallum continues, “The youth were able to present their cultural stories and their breads, for this tasting,” smiles McCallum. “We’ve made those recipes over and over again, because those breads have become a new part of our history that we’re building.”

The Montgomery INNovators are using the location to its best possible use. The building is still bringing communities together as it would have as an inn, breaking bread with Canadian newcomers and locals alike. An “Inn-ovative” approaching to learning, indeed.

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