Malin Elmlid was Head of Sales for the Danish cult fashion label Wood Wood, when she discovered her passion for baking. From then on out the born and raised Swede began to collect inspirations and recipes from bakers all over the planet. Without intending to, she created one of the most interesting Berlin food projects of recent years. We met Malin and had her tell us her story and about her book being published next year.
CFL: I heard that you’re currently working on a book. How’s that going and what are you writing about?
M: It’s going great, thanks! I’ve signed with the American publisher Chronicle Books. In October, the project is going to be presented at the Frankfurt Book Convention. First and foremost it’s a travel story and talks about how the Bread-Exchange-Project started. Beginning with my first attempts at baking in 2007 and the start of the actual project in 2009. It also speaks about bread in general and my personal perspective on it.
CFL: And what is your personal perspective on the topic?
M: Aside from flour, water and salt, my breads contain one further ingredient. These are the trade deals I make and the stories around it. I possess merely the baking skill to produce a simple sourdough bread. Everything else comes from the people that I meet. It is from their stories that the new breads emerge, like the one from the Japanese woman you already know.
CFL: You mean the bread with the charcoal in the dough? I didn’t know this idea stemmed from a Japanese woman. How did this come about?
M: The idea wasn’t specifically to bake with her charcoal. She simply brought the charcoal with her from Japan as a detoxification agent. Then I began to experiment with it. Different amounts resulted in different shades of grey. I am very color sensitive. Eventually, the bread emerged that you tried.
CFL: That was very good, indeed. So, for you the project was not about developing new kinds of bread but about exchange with people?
M: When I began the project, I didn’t plan for things to go that way. It all began with my being frustrated about not being able to find good white bread in Berlin. This lead me to avoid eating bread altogether. After all I work in fashion and don’t want to get fat.
But eventually I couldn’t handle the no-bread diet. I was on a business trip in Copenhagen and tasted a particular white bread. It was better than anything I’d tasted before. That very moment I made a decision. I could not cut bread like this from my eating habits. So if this kind of bread didn’t exist in Berlin I would have to learn how to make it myself.
CFL: What was so special about the bread from Copenhagen?
M: It was sourdough bread. That means that it’s baked slowly with natural bacteria and yeasts. It takes about 24 hours to bake sourdough bread from wheat flour. As opposed to bread baked from rye flour, as is common here in Germany, sourdough from wheat is much more sensitive. A difference similar to that between a work horse and a full blood. But it’s worth it, the bread has a wholy different kind of aroma, a moist consistency on the inside, stays fresh longer and is much easier on the digestive system due to its micro-organic flora
CFL: How did you learn to bake this bread?
M: I began researching. I started baking in my flat like crazy and did internships in bakeries all over the world. As my job had me travelling constantly anyway and moving from one large city to the next, I would often just tag on another couple of days to learn from somebody. No matter where I went, I contacted the best bakeries.
CFL: In which countries have you been able to gather baking experience?
M: I have baked with bakers in France, Sweden, Switzerland, the US and in Afghanistan. I always had my sourdough mother in a container with me und would try to find a bakery to bake in, no matter where I went. Even if I couldn’t do an internship everywhere, I’d usually get to chat for a bit with the various master bakers about their philosophies and techniques. It was really an amazing trip.
CFL: And how did the Bread-Exchange finally develop?
M: Well, soon I didn’t know what to do with all the bread. So I started gifting it to my neighbors. I brought bread to every business meeting. Eventually I started setting up pop-up bakeries in our show rooms around the world and fed our customers.
The only thing I asked for in return was people’s honest opinion regarding my bread. I did that for about two years, until one day I got an e-mail from somebody that had tried my bread. I didn’t even know him; he’d received the bread from a friend. He’d written he was a big fan of my bread and asked if I would let him invite me to the philharmonic to say thank you. I was delighted and accepted. Without any relation whatsoever, a second person approached me that same week and gave me a thank you present. From that moment on, it just kept coming.
There was never any intention behind any of this. It just happened on its own, that’s why there’s such a flow to everything. Do you know what I mean?
CFL: Absolutely, I feel the same about my own work. It’s like you were simply chosen to execute it, a type of mission, right?
M: Exactly. The project is not mine. It’s just as much the project of all the people that participate in it. People have brought such intimate things into this, family stories, receipes. All of them are contained in the breads. These are the stories my project and my book are about. In the beginning I hadn’t understood the metaphorical power that lies in bread. It has opened doors for me all over the globe.
Interview: Ludwig Cramer-Klett