Organic guru dancing to new tune

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

BERWICK — Even in ordinary times, we live with grief, disappointment, heartbreak and stress … COVID-19 only makes matters worse, observes the former Eastern Ontario guru of commercial organic processing in “Tom’s Pantry,” the latest weekly newsletter from his Berwick home kitchen.

One way of combatting that stress is with wholesome, local food such as the 50 loaves of sourdough bread Manley is crafting in that farmhouse kitchen every week, the next bake day being May 13. The loaves come in such flavours as Rye & Lavender, the organic lavender sourced from Temperance Farm at St. Isidore expected to go into full production this year. They don’t come cheap: up to $12 for a full loaf, $5 to $7 for a half.

The COVID Crisis has given rise to the latest project from the founder and former driving force of defunct Homestead Organics, which was based about half a kilometre as the crow flies from the brick home Manley shares with wife Isabelle.

“Almost every day, I hear references to people cooking more and making sourdough bread during this stay-home crisis,” he said, adding his experience of spreading joy through bread baking extends to selling a bag of organic all-purpose flour to a man in an Ottawa parking lot who noticed he had quite a load of it in his car. The stranger’s wife had been searching and couldn’t find it anywhere.

After COVID-19 put an end at least for now to the cheek-to-cheek intimacy of ballroom dancing — Manley’s other passion — he shifted focus to bread and has been baking up a storm. He said his baking business fits right into the current culture of buying more food online and a consumer urge to support local farmers and producers during these dark times.

Two years ago, Homestead ceased operations due to what Manley described as a combination of ambition and competition. When he looked around for something to occupy his time after declaring bankruptcy, he landed on his feet with the dancing that he and Isabelle were doing as a hobby. They began giving lessons.

Tom Manley and a recent batch of bread in his Berwick kitchen.

As a former supplier of organic grains, Manley always had a vague interest in baking bread with some of those same ingredients. He decided to take a course but was disappointed with his first foray; he found the guidance he was looking for from a Cobden baker and has specialized in sourdough breads in a multitude of flavours, starting with the familiar such as whole wheat and multi-grain and veering into exotics such as oregano and tomato, black olives, ezekiel, and chocolate cranberry.

He began selling his loaves at farmers markets and, after trying two others, settled on the one held Saturdays at the high school in Vankleek Hill, closed for the time being because of COVID-19. He’s still operating under the auspices of that market which is now doing business online. Many of Tom’s Pantry customers are Vankleek Hill regulars with new ones hearing about him through the market website and word of mouth.

“It’s highly specialized and not for everyone,” Manley explained as he popped another hot loaf onto his kitchen table while social distancing with a visitor. “Like the name suggests, it’s a little sour and very dense … this isn’t the marshmallowy white bread off the grocery store shelf.”

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