While holding to a semi-subterranean, strip mall location that might have even Santa second guessing the reindeer and GPS, over the past decade, Fieldstone Artisan Breads in Crescent Beach has become a well-plotted destination for local foodies and seasonal celebrities alike.
Naturally, this being the West Coast, some of those celebrities wait in line like everyone else, but the true stars – the local ingredients –make their way directly into the kitchen.
For the past 10 years, owners Paul and Nicola Hanley have committed themselves to creating a one-of-a-kind destination – a seasonal, artisan bakery with a serious commitment to local farms and customers alike. It is an admirable ethos made all the sweeter to savour as it extends over a rotating roster of 350 baked goods of invariable quality.
Come the holiday season, the volume of that commitment ramps up so radically on both sides of the counter that the Hanleys, along with their two young ones, close up shop for two weeks and head away for some annual R&R.
“Christmas is absolutely crazy here. Last year we had over 350 pre-orders and there was still and hour-and-a-half lineup on Christmas Eve. It’s our longest day, for sure, even for a bakery,” says Chef Paul Hanley. “Our baker Gord and I come in at midnight on Christmas Eve and work until 5 a.m. when the crew comes in, and Nicola stays until everyone leaves. Our customers now know we are going to be gone for a bit after that, but we’re back to lineups in January.”
Langley-raised and reared within the industry, Paul’s father owned an English restaurant in Aldergrove; it was there his appreciation for the kitchen and customer took hold, extending into another father/son opening in Abbotsford.
It was a world away though, while living in Japan as food and beverage manager at a resort, that Paul discovered the two passions that have kept him smiling since – chiefly, Nicola, who also worked there and a pastry chef who provided him ample inspiration and initiation into the craft of baked goods. Elevating the baking beyond what Paul had previously experienced was an attention to the detail that would become the primary import of their business model – everything else, they would source locally.
Returning home to hone his skills at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, Paul first entered Fieldstone’s bakery on a study practicum in 2000. Graduating, he went on to ply his pastry skills at a number of bakeries and restaurants before returning to work at Fieldstone Artisan Breads. Seven years after opening, the prior owner sold the business outright to Paul and Nicola in 2005, and they moved their longtime dream into action.
Of course, nothing makes a better bakery than better butter. For Hanley, that meant real Canadian butter, a commitment that took five years to put in place, but also secured him a government subsidy for his local logic.
While keeping the best elements including the talented team, the Hanleys put the massive Pavailler oven – considered the best bread-baking oven in the world and capable of giving rise to 200 lovely loaves at once – to fresh purpose.
What has defined Fieldstone since is both simple and complex – delicious baked goods taken to greatness by the utmost care for ingredients, a care which extends as much to the farmer as it is enjoyed by the customers. It is a highly edible ethos and one usually associated with top restaurants.
For the Hanleys, those local-source relationships are many, but one holds particular significance. From the first fingers of asparagus and rhubarb of spring to the fuller body of summer fruits, his relationship with Hazelmere Farms runs year round. It also holds deeper meaning, as it was here that Paul’s culinary ethos was moulded under the mentorship of farmers Gary and Naty King. Following Gary’s passing in 2009, their commitment to Naty’s rotating fresh bounty has only been strengthened, and inspired others.
“We have a staff of 20 and everyone loves to work with the fresh ingredients. I love to go out to the farm, come back with fresh ingredients and start handing them out to customers. We need to see and hold those local ingredients sometimes to understand that they are what really makes the difference in the final product,” he says. “Whether it is the fresh chanterelle mushrooms in the quiche or the sweetness of the corn bread, it comes back to the local goodness of those ingredients.”
Based on lineups alone, that love of local has proven a solid business logic, but that is not what fuels their continued efforts.
“I’ve been in this industry all my life and worked with a lot of old-school chefs who stressed the importance of doing it right – and we are. We do what we love, can do whatever we want and people thank us for it. That’s unbeatable,” says Hanley.
He smiles, thinking of the busy holiday season ahead.
“That said, those couple of weeks away in a house on a warm, deserted beach eating, drinking and swimming…we’ll be ready for that soon enough!”