Against the Grain: Seylou Bakery’s Sustainable Bread-Making Revolution
March 1, 2022 @ 10:00am
Walking into Seylou Bakery in Shaw, the first thing you’ll notice — aside from the alluring pastry case and loaves of bread on shelves behind it — are the giant bags of locally-sourced whole grains stacked right in front of the entrance. Owner and baker Jonathan Bethony confirms these sacks are not there by accident.
“The whole idea is to make this as interactive and visceral an exposure to grains as we can in one visit,” says Bethony, who co-owns the entirely whole-grain bakery with his wife, Jessica Azeez.
That’s a pretty unique perspective for a baker and it’s a perspective that Bethony hopes catches on. Like most bakers, he wants to make delicious breads and pastries that nourish and delight his customers. His distinctive approach isn’t just whole grain, however — it’s more like holistic grain.
“All the grain we use is regional and that’s part of the ethos: the philosophy that will hopefully come to light by the end of the tour because it’s all tied together,” Bethony says on a recent Sunday afternoon at the shop where Azeez alternately chases their speedy toddler and balances her on a hip.
“It’s all based on the same principles, which are integrity and respect for the land and for the greater impact of our actions. That begins with supporting regenerative agriculture and taking care of the land we’re taking from. For us, it wouldn’t be commensurate to sell really nice bread. It [might] be healthy and flavorful bread, but then it’s just stripping the earth.”
Those sacks of grain are milled right there in the bakery before Bethony transforms them into breads that aren’t often seen in these parts, such as the einkorn (made from an ancient grain), pennol (made from whole wheat), Mischbrot (a German rye bread) and horse bread, a loaf made with legumes, millet and sorghum that was allegedly created in Medieval Europe to feed horses.
“It’s basically a loaf of everything but the refined wheat that was found throughout the world,” Bethony says. “I wanted to use that to tell the story of a whole-farm bakery with a whole-farm philosophy, with land management baked right into it.”
Open since 2017, Bethony estimates Seylou — the word for “eagle” in Senegal, a place Bethony has a strong connection to after spending much time there — now uses about a ton of local grain and sells about a thousand loaves of bread per week. He employs old-world techniques like long fermentations, soaking, sprouting, malting and nixtamalization to tease out the best flavors while maximizing the health benefits of the grains.
In addition to Senegal, Bethony was also heavily influenced by his time as a research baker at Washington State University Bread Lab. Get him talking and before long, he’s ponying out words like “diploid,” “hexaploid,” “crop diversity” and “DNA structure.” Again, not words commonly associated with baking, but they reveal what might be his true passion: doing what’s best not just for his bakery and the earth — but for supporting farmers the best way he knows how.
“This is the part of the story that is not ever really told,” he says. “The baker usually gets the credit but I don’t feel I’m in the position for that because I’m just carrying the torch from what’s already been done.” I’m trying to keep it intact, trying to keep that same level of integrity going in my processes.”
And if supporting small local farmers means making things a bit tougher on himself, so be it. Bethony says he regularly buys less desirable crops from these farmers and figures out a tasty way to incorporate them into his bakes without sacrificing quality.
“When you work closely with the natural world, you’re going to get all kinds of variations that would drive most bakers completely insane,” he says. “So we’re constantly on our toes here. It’s not just do this and you get that, which is usually what baking is like. Every day we have to approach it brand new. We’ve literally built our menu off a regenerative land practice.”
He sees other benefits, both large and small, to buying local and supporting sustainable purveyors.
“We want to keep the money in the region, circulating and strengthening the community and also lowering the carbon footprint from trucking grain or eggs or butter across the country just because it’s cheaper,” he says. “That’s part of a whole broken system. It’s royally going to screw us over one day, unless we change the way we’re doing things.”
Let the revolution begin.
Bethony says the most common question he gets is whether they have any sourdough bread.
“It’s thought of as a type of bread,” he says, “but ‘pain levain’ is basically ‘sourdough’ in French.”
In other words, sourdough and pain levain are basically any breads that rely on a fermented starter rather than commercial yeast to rise. The wild yeast found in a starter also adds to the complex, sour flavor. So while people are probably conjuring an image of the white sourdough bread that became a popular pandemic project, the dark, nutrient-rich pain au levain sold at Seylou is also a form of sourdough.”
Bethony’s loaves go through 24 hours of various fermentation stages before hitting the bakery’s massive wood-fired oven.
“What a baker is trying to do is break down the bread as much as possible for maximum flavor and nutrition, but stop before the structure and flavor becomes undesirable,” he says of the fermentation process. “If you over-ferment bread, it starts to turn into something like a sourdough starter and all the gluten, all the structure is just totally broken down so it won’t inflate. It’ll be dense and kind of gnarly — but probably pretty good for you still.”
“I’m trying to keep it intact [and] keep that same level of integrity going in my processes.”
Seylou Bakery: 926 N St. Ste. A NW, DC; seylou.com // @seyloubakery
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