Our job is to make delicious, healthy, and beautiful food. Our breads are made with local grains from organic and biological farms within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Our flour is stone-milled on-site a few days before each bake and our dough is naturally-leavened and hand-mixed, in order to provide the Shenandoah Valley with a healthy, tasty food staple that is healthy for the land, too.
Nico’s alarm is set for the wee hours of the morning. He slips out of bed and walks around the corner to the bakery attached to our house to check the development of the sourdough starter, now large and foamy. Over the next hours, this bubbly froth will be transformed into crispy, crusty bread. Fresh-milled flour; local grains from local farmers; artful, healthy bread from a scorching hot hearth oven. For our young family it has been quite a journey to get here.
In 2011 we, Nico and Rachel Sarah, bought a fixer-upper house so we could turn the yard into gardens without digging up any more landlords’ lawns. We practiced urban homesteading. We grew lots of food and learned how to store it up for winter. We shared a dairy cow with a few other families and soon added butter-churning, cheese-making, and yogurt-setting to our weekly chores. We went deeper into the rabbit hole, pushing to meet more of our needs locally and with human-power as much as possible.
Nico and Servando dig a raised bed in our garden.
In autumn of 2015 we planned to visit Nico’s grandmother in Greece. Some friends suggested that we visit The Community of the Ark of Lanza del Vasto in France while we were in Europe. The Community of the Ark was founded by a Catholic student of Gandhi. Since the 1940s they had championed the importance of doing their own labor with their own hands so as not to require others to labor for them. For decades they grew their food, made cheese, and wove wool and linen fabric which was sewn into clothing. They prayed and meditated together, threw pottery, and washed their clothes by hand in a fully stocked communal lavatory. They plowed their fields with horses, milled their flour, and baked their bread in a wood-fired oven. Without being plugged into the grid, they met all their needs together.
In the 6 days that we visited the Ark, we joined in with whatever seasonal work they were doing to get a fuller picture of what their life was like. Rachel Sarah helped make fresh apple cider with a giant, community-sized apple press. Nico met the head baker at 4am to watch the mixing, and was deeply impressed with the beauty of the process. He also learned that the head baker was wanting an apprentice.
The bread oven at the Ark. "Me eo bara ar vuez" means "I am the bread of life" in Breton, the native language in that region of France.
After we returned to the Shenandoah Valley, we mulled over what we had seen and heard at the Ark. We had been working together with other folks to build an intentional Christian community, envisioning some kind of cottage industry that could provide for our economic needs while allowing us to live the land-based life we love and feel called to. In addition, we had long-since noticed that grains and other plant-based staple foods were all but absent from the local food movement in our region. So, what about bread? In our visit to the Ark a seed had been planted: could Nico be trained in an off-grid, wood-fired, artisan sourdough bakery in a long-standing Christian community?
The Ark graciously accepted Nico as an apprentice under their farmer/miller/baker for one year. From November 2017 to October 2018, Nico learned that without walk-in refrigerators and climate-controlled buildings, there are two important bread "recipes": one for summer and one for winter. In spring and fall, he gently shifted from one recipe to the other following the lead of the slowly shifting seasons. They used local, organic grains from their own fields and other farms nearby, and Nico learned to work with the nuances of fresh-milled grain, which lacks the stabilizers and homogenizers that store-bought flour offers.
Nico slides pan loaves into the oven at the Ark.
Halfway through our year, Nico’s apprentice master broke the news: he recommended that Nico apprentice under at least one other baker before we start our own bakery. In order to build on what he had been learning at the Ark, Nico was urged to look for a bakery with three specific features: a wood-fired oven used to bake naturally-leavened bread with fresh-milled flour.
After our return from France on Christmas Eve of 2018, Nico worked for a week at two different bakeries that each met his three requirements. By the end of February 2019, he had been accepted for a year-long position at Seylou Bakery & Mill in Washington DC. Now Nico built on his knowledge from France by getting to know grains from the Chesapeake Bay watershed: his own home region. He visited the farms with other Seylou staff and connected with the farmers personally. At Seylou he learned “bread theory”: that is, they spent time working through the complexities of how the ingredients (flour, water, salt, and leaven) combine with actions (mixing, time, rest, and heat) to create bread. He continued to learn how to work with the nuances of fresh-milled, local grains, seeing what problems would arise and how to solve them.
Nico taking bread to the farmers market for Seylou Bakery & Mill.
In March 2020, we joyfully (albeit hurriedly, as pandemic restrictions were intensifying) returned to the Shenandoah Valley. Our one year away had turned into nearly three years away. In that time Nico had become a baker: he learned tradition in France, science in DC, and gained valuable mentors and peers with a wealth of knowledge and experience who are always happy to answer his questions when he calls.
The vision that began in the new year of 2016 has finally become a reality with Mill Song Bakery. We are proud to offer Harrisonburg a product that we also bring into our own kitchen to slice up on our cutting board and serve to our children! Thanks for your support.