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Learn about outdoor baking

Neal Bowers, Lunenburg’s bread man, talks outdoor baking

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Neal Bowers stokes the fire in his bread oven. Photo by Sandra Phinney.

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While teaching a course in school librarianship at the University of Prince Edward Island in 1987, Neal Bowers heard about a novel way to deal with stress: “One of the participants said she loved to get a big batch of dough going and lose herself in the kneading. Good exercise with edible results.”

Back home in Lunenburg, N.S. where Bowers and his wife Marie have lived and worked since 1969, bread-making became his default snow day activity. He’d make a big batch of three or four loaves. “Two for us, one or two to give away to colleagues,” he says.

With retirement looming in February 2002, Bowers decided to increase his output and sell some. Loosely following the model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), he formed a bread club. Friends and acquaintances invest $10 at a time and he delivers freshly baked bread on specified days.

Although eager to increase production, Bowers’ standard-size kitchen oven limited him. Yet, investing in a commercial oven seemed a stretch. That’s when he remembered a childhood family vacation in Quebec where he saw wood-fired bread ovens in back yards, with bread for sale at roadside. “The ovens were often rough-looking structures made of clay,” he says. “But the bread was tasty, and there were lots of customers.”

Research led Bowers to purchase a book titled The Bread Builders by Alan Scott and Daniel Wing. He ramped up his baking time and serendipity stepped in; he started working as the Sunday morning baker at LaHave Bakery in December of 2002. In addition to bread, Bowers made pizza and baked sandwiches. “Think Hot Pockets, but only better,” he says. Occasionally he helped out on other days as well.

With the expansion of his bread-making expertise, Bowers ordered Alan Scott’s plans to build an outdoor bake oven. He and his friend, “all-around handyman” Eban Stevens, started building the oven in 2003.

The material list from the plans was easy to source from building supply outlets and garden centres. The only puzzling part was the area around the oven door (where the flue is), “But we improvised a bit and it worked out.” Now there are excellent YouTube videos showing each step in detail.

Bowers baked his first batch of bread (whole wheat round loaves with flax, poppy, and sunflower seeds) that November. He says as he pulled the loaves out of the oven he thought it was old-timey and magical.

“Good loaves of bread are the result of fully mixed and kneaded dough, fermented and proofed at optimum temperature for the right length of time, and baked at the right temperature for just the right length of time,” says the 67-year-old bread-making aficionado. “Mistakes and failed loaves happen, but even these can be turned into croutons, bread crumbs, or bread pudding.” Keeping a straight face, he says, “You could always use an overcooked loaf as a door stop.”

Bowers’ says his biggest satisfaction in baking is using his outdoor oven. “Using really old and primitive technology and materials to make a tasty and nourishing food item that is superior to 99 per cent of what is available in a grocery store.”

Bowers likens making bread to meditation. “There’s a contemplative zone to enter, a rhythmic physical activity to get lost in. Making bread is satisfying. I also feel proud and privileged.”

Rose-Marie Lohnes was introduced to Bowers’ bread five years ago and is now a regular customer. The Bridgewater resident says, “Although I’m partial to his sourdough bread, I also love his baguettes and bagels. All his breads are made with specially ground flours and extra seeds. They are delicious!”

Lohnes buys four to five loaves at a time, and often eats half a loaf as soon as it comes through the door. She also slices the bread and freezes it. “With no preservatives, a loaf only stays fresh for a few days, Lohnes says, “but his bread freezes really well.” She also appreciates the fact that the bread has an interesting texture because of the ingredients the baker uses and the way the bread is baked outside.

“The flavour is unique and has just the right amount of moisture,” Lohnes says, adding, “I think he kneads love into each loaf.”

Sandra Phinney

East Coast Living