POLESTAR HEARTH AND SOURDOUGH BREAD: A REVOLUTIONARY PAIR
BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR JONATHON BARRABALL
‘All sorrows are less with bread.’ -Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Bakeries smell good. It’s a universal truth. Walking in to the smell of warm bread isa soul cleansing experience that everyone should have on at least a weekly basis. And when you open the door to Polestar Hearth,a sourdough bakery in Guelph, this sensory phenomenon is heightened to such a degree that you might never want to leave. In the words of my girlfriend, Sidey, whom I brought to Polestar for the first time the other week, ‘it smells so good you could die in here.’
Polestar Hearth is indeed a special place, and not just for the thoughts-of-the-after-life inducing aroma. It began eleven years ago when Jesse Merrill, the owner and creator (then a musical instrument repairman), built a small brick oven in his backyard and began making sourdough. Soon Jesse was delivering fresh loaves of sourdough bread by bicycle throughout his neighborhood. Before long he transferred his operation to a much
larger oven he built in his garage, and finally, two years ago, he moved his bread-making activities into his bakery proper, Polestar, which now produces loaves of sourdough – this seemingly simple food composed of only four ingredients that, when slightly manipulated, can produce innumerable fabulous results – in a warm, cozy, peaceful, and welcoming space.
It’s easy to get caught up watching the bakers at Polestar hard at work, folding and shaping dough or sliding loaves of sourdough in and out of the oven. Yet the place has an almost meditative aura, even with a swarm of patrons bustling about on a Saturday morning. ‘Breadmaking is a peaceful, simple process,’ Tobey Deystells, who heads up the baking program at Polestar, tells me. Tobey talks about sourdough as if the bread has its own thoughts and emotions. ‘You form a sort of relationship with the dough,’ she says. ‘So many different factors can have an effect on it: the temperature outside, the humidity.’ She adds: ‘I swear, sometimes it changes based on my mood.’
Jesse, who developed Polestar’s current starter by isolating yeasts and bacteria froma sunflower and some grapes grown in his own backyard, agrees that the sourdough seems to have its own living, breathing soul. ‘Keeping up with the starter all these years has been a huge part of life for my family and me,’ he says, adding that he has even brought the starter with him on family vacations, in order to ensure its quality and livelihood. ‘Sometimes it feels like our lives revolve around it,’ he says. ‘It continues to give – and continues to challenge.’
But bread making isn’t all good smells and tastes; it can be political, too. ‘Choosing sourdough over countless other varietiesof bread is something of an ethical choice,’ Tobey observes, adding that ‘in the world of mass-produced and commercialized food products, sourdough (healthy, handmade, and really delicious) is a sort of disruptive anti-technology.’ Jesse, who in spite of being a successful professional baker encourages people to bake at home, concurs. ‘Making your own bread is a sort of form of social resistance,’ he explains. ‘Here’s something you can make with very few ingredients that can nurture and sustain your family; it’s sort of beyond commerce.’ For those who don’t feel revolutionary enough to bake their own sourdough bread at home, it’s good to know that on any given day there’s about a half a dozen different types of beautiful and delicious loaves to choose from at Polestar Hearth, where just walking in andbreathing deeply can be a sensual treat, and maybe even a soul cleansing experience.
535 Woolwich St, Guelph