Saturday, March 28, 2009

The bread next-door

On a bright March morning J.J. Heffring, who looks like a homespun version of movie star Kate Hudson, makes bread deliveries on St. Viateur. She carries two big shopping bags of loaves and Sophie, her three-year-old daughter, scoots along beside her on a pink bike with training wheels.

The first stop is Salon Dorothy, where J.J. gives a loaf of warm homemade bread to owner Josie Paris who hands her $5 and refuses change saying, "No, no, no! You bring it all the way here, no!"

J.J. and Sophie move on, waving and calling out "Hi Tommy!" as they pass the barber who still has the postcard they sent him from their summer vacation on display in his shop.

It's as though J.J. has been living here happily forever, but when she and her filmmaker husband Jesse, first arrived in Montreal in 2001, she cried. She was three months pregnant with their oldest daughter, Zoe, and the grey streets and grime of the city made her want to turn the car around and go back to Calgary, where they'd been living, or to rural Saskatchewan, where she'd grown up.

Now she knows all the shopkeepers along St. Viateur by their first names. "That's how I've tried to cultivate a community for my girls because I don't have grandparents or parents here," explains J.J. who's named after her two grandfathers, Joshua and John.

The organic, multigrain bread she sells for $4.00 a loaf is her way of transporting the flavour of the prairies, and the traditions of her family, to the neighbourhood.

"It's a prairie bread," she says. "It's gentler than many multigrain breads. It has a light crumb and a great taste with a sweetness from the wildflower honey. It's a good morning bread, a breakfast bread. A lot of the French bakeries here are fancy or artisan and it's not that. I don't do decadent. I do wholesome."

When J.J. talks about baking she inspires visions of loaves and pies cooling on a windowsill, an eyelet curtain rippling in the breeze. She is the blond blue-eyed farm girl a marketing department would invent to sell baked goods. She calls her daughters "lovey" and says things like "son of a biscuit, where are my gloves."

J.J. grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, eight miles outside the village of St. Brieux, a field away from her grandmother. "I have memories of stubble under my feet. It tickled," she says.

"I grew up watching Grandma bake pies in the early morning and bring them out to the men working in the fields. It was normal to haul a roast out of the oven at 11 in the morning. We put hot tea in sealer jars and stuck them in wool socks to keep them warm."

On her St. Viateur bread route, J.J. hooks a bag of bread onto the door at S.W. Welch's Bookseller's. Stephen Welch got to know J.J. when she came in to browse cookbooks and, as fellow foodies, they bonded. He's been getting her bread for a year now. "It's healthy, good bread. It's really not expensive and it's delivered," he says. "I like it fresh, with my natural peanut butter."

Sophie and J.J. cross Parc Avenue and head to the YMCA where a dozen mothers at the play-group are waiting for their fresh loaves. These are her core clients.

"It all started when I brought a loaf and jam to a casual play-group at someone's house last winter," J.J. says. "One of the moms there, said, 'oh can you make me one?'"

"I think it's a cool idea, a farm girl from Saskatchewan baking in her house," says Stella Furquim, J.J.'s first customer. "The price is fair and the most important thing, my son likes it. It's so hard to get kids to eat healthy bread! Maybe it's the honey in it." Stella told two friends about "J.J. bread," as it's called in her household, and they told two friends and so on.

By April 2008, J.J. was making six loaves a week for moms she knew. From there, word of mouth spread. She now bakes three dozen loaves a week, some for people she barely knows.

At 6 a.m. while her family is still sleeping, J.J. blends ground flaxseed, quinoa and millet together with stone-ground wheat, eggs, honey, salt and yeast. The quinoa is her variation on a recipe from her dad, the bread baker in the family. He's given her a Bosch mixer for the process and also a mill that she hopes to use to make her own fresh flour, once she can find a wheat supplier.

"My dad always said a good loaf squeaks when you knead it," she says, punching the dough into loaves in her compact, sunny third-floor kitchen. In her narrow apartment-sized oven, she can only fit six loaves at a time.

Her Monday customers pick up their loaves from J.J.'s doorstep and leave money in the envelope provided.

"I started to get upset because I hadn't met all the people I was baking for," says J.J.. "So, I'd hover around the door waiting and say, 'Hi, I'm J.J. and here's your loaf.' I like a hands-on approach."

She's crunched the numbers and found she really isn't making much on this venture. "But it's not about that right now," she says. "It's about getting me out there, getting loyalty, then maybe eventually opening a bakery."

In the meantime, she'd like to expand, but not by too much. Given her current set-up, she could increase her output by about 24 more loaves a week.

All the customers I talk to are fans of "J.J. bread" and they especially like taking part in this most micro of local businesses. "I want to support her. She's sweet," says Nancy Ho, whose one-and-a-half-year-old son, Louis, loves the bread.

Postscript - November 2009: J.J. has suspended her bread baking and pick-up/delivery service. She and her husband have bought a place and are moving out of the neighbourhood. Little do the residents of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve know what's in store for them...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

One hundred neckties

I notice Nick Dordas because he glows. At his spot in the window of the dry-cleaners, the lamp next to his sewing machine lights up his face and hands and his sharp white shirt. With his combed-back silver hair and crisp attire he looks almost too perfect to be real. He could be a tailor in a movie shoot, or part of somebody's art project.

Nick Dordas is his own work of art. In a neighbourhood where it's hard to find someone who's not wearing jeans, he wears a fitted shirt, a buttoned vest, dress pants, and a tie.

"I like to dress," says the tailor, who is 69, and the owner of 100 neckties. "I take off the tie when I sleep. I don't like jeans." He frowns at a pair on the counter in front of him. "I wear jeans when I go to the village in Greece. In the city, never!"

I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt, as I do every day, and while we talk I notice threads unraveling from my top. Next to Dordas it's hard not to feel like a slob. The only casual aspect of his appearance is the measuring tape draped around his neck. He pulls a length of it down to the counter, marks the offending jeans, and chalks the hemline with a yardstick.

His actions are meticulous, he is a jeans surgeon. It rings true when he says that as a boy in Tripoli, Greece, he chose tailoring over carpentry, shoemaking or painting because he wanted to stay clean. At 13, he went to Athens to work at a tailor's in the big city. "If you don't love it, you don't learn. I love it. I know everything. " He snips off extra material from the legs of the jeans, then sews a perfect hem.

When I give him my ripped jacket, in a couple minutes Dordas fixes the torn pocket and also sews up other holes he has located under the arm. He disposes of each frayed edge and ripped seam with the energetic intolerance of a perfectionist.

James Bitzilios hired him to do alterations at the shop a year and a half ago, after Dordas closed the garment factory he'd run for over 30 years. "I come here to pass my time," Dordas says. "What am I going to do at home. Wash dishes? I didn't want to retire. I'm not tired!"

He has a wife, grown children and grandchildren who go to Greek school. Plus, he says he knows half the Greeks in Montreal. Clearly, all this is not enough. Dordas needs to be sewing. He comes in at 7:30 in the morning, drinks a coffee, opens up the shop and gets to work.

"For him, it's like playing golf is for me," Bitzilios says. "You can tell he loves what he does."

Bitzilios says having Dordas in the window is good for business. People stop and stare, take his picture and then ask about alterations. Dordas is the siren, luring in passersby, with his Old World style and spellbinding fastidiousness.

"Everybody passes by, they wave," Dordas says. "Sometimes, they pass and..." he puts his fingers to his lips to mimic people's appreciation for his work.

At around three o'clock, after darning someone's holey wool sweater, Dordas announces, "Finished."

It's mid-afternoon. Jeans, pants, skirts and jackets lie in a large heap, waiting for his attention.

"For tomorrow, I have only this," he says with a hint of regret, as if the big pile is not much at all, as if it's not nearly enough.

Dordas uses this method every day. Before it gets too late, Dordas stops sewing, making sure to leave himself something to do in the morning. You can tell it's an effort. If he weren't careful, he might just give into temptation and breeze through the mountain of clothes in a flash.

Renew Système
251 Bernard Ouest

This profile also appears in the mysterious paper
Le Bathyscaphe #4.