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[Weekender] The rise of ‘indie’ bakery

Artisans turning to age-old starter traditions to craft French-style bread

“Indie,” the word that Joo Eun-suk, who runs a bakery called Mill in Seochon, uses to describe the growing number of small-scale, artisanal bakeries in Seoul, aptly captures the independent spirits of these bakers.

These artisans seem to see dough as a canvas, to be nurtured with natural starters and the right blend of quality flour to achieve a unique blueprint of texture, flavor and aroma that represents their idea of good bread, be it the ephemeral brioche at Mill, the chewy and crisp-edged campagne at Le Pain or the nutty, near-caramel bliss of the pain au levain at Pain de Papa.

According Pain de Papa owner-baker Lee Ho-young, bakeries specializing in French-style breads and natural starters are increasingly prevalent, to the point where he fears the neighborhood bakery market is becoming dangerously homogenous.

Consumer interest in naturally-leavened bread seems to be one of the impetuses behind this phenomenon. 

Pain de Papa sends a nod to tradition with pain de campagne, crafted with natural starter and whole wheat flour contract farmed and milled in South Korea, to create a miche with a delicate lattice of air pockets to help determine the bread’s texture. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Pain de Papa sends a nod to tradition with pain de campagne, crafted with natural starter and whole wheat flour contract farmed and milled in South Korea, to create a miche with a delicate lattice of air pockets to help determine the bread’s texture. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

“I think that many customers think that breads that incorporate natural starters are better for one’s health,” Mill owner Joo, 50, explained one potential reason behind the city’s burgeoning starter culture via email.

Now when one walks into a bakery like Le Pain, one can decide if one wants bread that has incorporated natural starters simply by reading the labels, which detail very clearly not only which breads have used natural starters, but what kind of ingredients were used to craft these starters, be it apples or rye.

“We have been refreshing our rye starter for five years now,” said Le Pain owner-baker Im Tae-eon, 39, at his second outlet in Lotte World Mall.

Like Im, Lee has been refreshing his raisin-based starter, the backbone to his campagne and pain au levain, for seven years, ever since he first opened in Seoul’s Garosugil.

Mill, which opened near Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace last year, also works with natural starters to craft sourdough, campagne, toast bread and whole wheat breads.

Given the prevalence of bakeries using natural starters throughout the city, it is hard to imagine there was a time when natural starters were not so common or sought out by consumers.

According to Pain de Papa’s Lee, such a time existed, a time when bread was considered a snack and not a meal, and bakeries were expected to sell a wide repertoire of goods from basics like red bean buns and toast bread to other eats like pizza and hamburgers.

When Lee first opened Pain de Papa in 2008, he said, bakeries specializing in European bread that used natural starters were few and far between.

Even in 2011, when Le Pain’s Im opened his first bakery, “people tried to stop me from specializing in French-style bread that incorporated natural starters.”

Now “everywhere you go the bread is the same,” Im believes the market for French-style bread using natural starters is saturated.

That means more competition for everyone.

Pain de Papa’s Lee, 49, who saw sales of his non-sweet, grain-centric loaves quadruple from 2008 to 2013, said, “Sales of our healthy breads are still increasing, but because of competition we did not see a huge jump in sales.”

The proliferation of natural starters and French-style bread is, according Lee, due partly to the shift in consumption of bread in South Korea as a snack to a meal and to the desire to eat healthier bread.

“French bread is light and is generally eaten as part of a meal,” Lee explained, adding how it is considered healthier and good for dieting by customers because bread like baguettes or campagne does not incorporate sugar or butter.

“There are people who come in and seek out healthy bread,” he added.

Health, however, seems to be only one component of why places like Pain de Papa are doing well.

Pain de Papa now boasts two outlets, one in Sinsa-dong, near Garosugil, and another in Samseong-dong, while Le Pain has four outlets, including one in Myeong-dong and one near Seokcheon Lake.

Each spot boasts its own unique identity, a sort-of bread manifest that seems to have clinched a loyal following.

Take Lee’s pain au levain, for instance, which he deliberately crafts from domestically grown and milled whole wheat flour that he has contract farmed and leavens with a seven-year-old, raisin-based natural starter.

“I wanted to make something specific to Korea,” Lee explained of why he is deeply involved in ensuring Korean-grown flour goes into his nutty, slightly dense, tart and near-caramelized loaves.

In stark contrast, Im adheres to French T-55 flour in his desire to create what he considers traditional French baguettes and campagne. He focuses on crafting loaves of campagne that are incredibly chewy, fluffy and with a thin, crisp shell.

Then there is Mill’s Joo, who creates slightly eggy, slightly buttery, airy yet moist brioche, the kind that is best eaten on the premises, still warm, without any fixings, one soft, decadent bite at a time. 

By Jean Oh (