“Bread is a food that strongly connects history, storytelling, and craftsmanship. And, more than that, bread emotionally connects a large part of the world, regardless of religion, class or culture. For all these reasons, I suppose it is not at all surprising that I was drawn to bake and share bread.” Malin Elmlid, The Bread Exchange: Tales and Recipes from My Journey of Baking and Bartering.
For Malin Elmlid, making sourdough loaves began out of a desire to simply eat good bread. Traveling constantly for her job in fashion sales, the Berlin-based Swede was disappointed with the bread she found, both in Berlin where she was living (and still lives) and in various cities she ventured to. Such a basic staple, made with just flour, water, and salt, may sound easy but it can be incredibly difficult to get right. Elmlid’s first challenge was to make a sourdough that she could savor and enjoy eating herself. After much practice she began to give loaves away to friends and neighbors who would, in turn, pass them on to their acquaintances too. The initial intent was never to trade, but to give something meaningful without any expectations. This in itself is a rarity when almost everything we consume has a price. Elmlid’s motto quickly became ‘Everything is not for sale’. By eliminating the monetary exchange, she found instead, a place for exchanged appreciation—be it in the form of handmade gifts or music lessons or an open narrative in new environments, like a women’s bakery in Kabul where, without bread, the door would be closed. “The trades I receive in exchange for my bread are often just as impossible to value monetarily as my loaves,” says Elmlid. “Instead of money, I receive something that is way more valuable to me… I receive stories, I have inspiring encounters, and my horizons are expanded.”
The Bread Exchange book is the culmination of years spent honing, refining, adapting, and, finally, trading the sourdough loaf. Elmlid’s first trade was in 2009 for a spare ticket to the Berlin Philharmonic. Since then, trades have exceeded the 1,500 mark and range from guitar lessons, quince, and sea salt to edible charcoal from South Korea and a handmade suitcase from Swedish brand Alstermo Bruk. The book’s stories span the globe: Antwerp to Kabul, San Francisco to The Sinai, with each chapter combining travels and fleeting encounters, trades and shared recipes with Elmlid’s personal approach to sourdough baking. “I had certain places that definitely impacted me when I was there and I knew they needed to be in the book,” she says. “The Sinai Desert, for example. For me, it was an obvious place to start because that’s where the first bread was made 6,000 years ago and that’s the beginning point of all bread cultures.” Unusually, given this is a story about sourdough, San Francisco wasn’t top of Elmlid’s list—that is until she met with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery and asked to use his oven. “Chad’s bread is without a doubt one of the best breads I’ve ever eaten,” enthuses Elmlid. And as she describes in the book, “He was striving for quality, which always carries a story. And I was striving for stories, without compromising on quality.”
In what is a satisfying full circle, many items traded for The Bread Exchange loaves often end up in or accompanying them. Her signature loaf is made with edible charcoal first given to her by a woman in South Korea; the Dior gray- shaded sourdough is topped with sage leaves and best eaten with Vermont butter. Another recipe born from a trade (with an Icelandic salt-maker) was a seaweed-covered bread made using the same salt water content as the ocean where the salt was collected.
“In the beginning it was all about bread and the frustration over bread,” she says. “But it’s become about exchanging ideas with people. The bread is crucial though; there’s no other product that would work the same way. It just wouldn’t have the same emotional impact on people.” Regardless of whether it was star chefs or the humblest women in Afghanistan, it provided the perfect door opener. “I can’t come up with another product that has the same impact on us regardless of our cultural heritage,” she adds. “It can be extremely religious but it’s not bound to a religion, which I think is really important. It’s also about a respect for the bread—not just seeing it as fuel but to see it also as something more, something that should be taken with consideration.” ANDIE CUSICK
Malin Elmlid’s book, The Bread Exchange: Tales and Recipes from My Journey of Baking and Bartering is available now.
For more information, see thebreadexchange.com