There’s a fine drizzle in the air as we trudge down silent streets towards Icon Village. Absent of the usual bustle around Tanjong Pagar district, the mall is disconcertingly still, shrouded in darkness. Our destination is ahead: the faint glow of lights at the end of the hallway. Stifling a yawn, I look down at my watch. 3.40am.
While my camera crew make a beeline for the coffee machine, I pop behind the swinging door of Nick Vina Artisan Bakery to meet master baker Nick Chua and his two night-shift staff, who are already hands deep in dough. Their motions are quick and fluid; their eyes riveted on the floury moulds scattered across the wooden workbench. As it turns out, they’ve been there since 3am, arranging, shaping, folding and panning dough in preparation for baking.
“As bakers, we start work in the middle of the night,” explains Nick, who has been a bread artisan for over 20 years. “After shaping, we need time for the dough to proof, which is best done at an ambient temperature of around 24 to 25̊C. Since our bakery is located within a shopping mall, we have to plan our time well and work fast to get everything ready before the air-con kicks in and before our doors open at 8am.”
In baking terms, proofing refers to the process in which yeasted bread dough is allowed to rest and rise. As yeast ferments, carbon dioxide is produced and trapped as air pockets within the gluten network, thereby leavening the dough.
Nick cautions that time and temperature are both “critical” in the proofing process: “The two work hand in hand – the higher the temperature, the faster the bread rises. The baker has to gauge by experience whether or not the dough has proofed sufficiently. Under-proof the dough, you get a tight crumb and poor layers. Over-proof, and your bread may end up collapsing due to overstretched gluten. It’s a tricky process.”
Most of his breads, which are handcrafted loaves based on sourdough, proof for a minimum for 12 – more often 24 – hours in the fridge. This proofing process is arguably the most important step, as it’s when the dough gets infused with flavour from ethanol and other byproducts produced during fermentation. It is also what gives his loaves a unique flavour different from other commercial bakeries. “Some customers have asked if I add things into my bread,” Nick grins. “No, it’s actually because I ferment my dough. You may be eating bread [from another bakery] made from the same whole-wheat [flour], but because of the way it’s been treated, the flavour will turn out differently.”
Long before the arrival of foreign franchises such as Starter Lab and Wu Pao Chun, the Hanover-trained Nick was already promoting artisanal breads to local consumers, many of whom found it difficult to accept the denser heft of his European loaves. Despite the poor traction initially, Nick persisted; today, his regular customers comprise locals and expatriates alike, who come specifically for bread varieties hard to find otherwise on our sunny shores.
“Dinklelbrot (spelt bread), buckwheat and sprouted wheat are some of the more unique breads we do here,” recommends Nick. Unlike other bakeries which rely on different fillings to distinguish breads, Nick prefers to focus on the bread itself, using different types of rye, spelt and wheat flours in varying percentages to develop his recipes. He doesn’t believe in churning out only crowd-pleasers such as French baguette or Italian focaccia. Instead, his niche lies in a diverse cornucopia of German-inspired loaves, including Vollkornbrot (whole-grain brown bread), roggenbrot (rye bread), Kaiser loaf and more. These are all dark, wholesome breads, often packed with multi-grains and seeds for an extra nutritional boost.
He also produces an eponymous Nick pain miche, which is made from rye, whole wheat and German wheat flour. Each two-kilogram round loaf is slow-baked for around an hour, to obtain a crisp crust with a delightfully soft, spongy crumb.
“If your bread is baked well, there will be textures and nuances,” Nick explains. “Generally, bakers consider the ‘perfect’ loaf to have three distinct colours: the crust should be brown and caramelised, bordering on slightly burnt with a hint of bitterness; the next layer should be crisp and golden brown; and the insides should be soft and fluffy. Together, these three layers give the full flavour profile.” To demonstrate his point, he obligingly slices apart a loaf of freshly-baked pain miche alongside a baguette, pointing out the differences in crust thickness, the density and varying sizes of air bubbles in the crumb, as well as the distinct nuances in flavour.
Through his animated descriptions, it’s clear this is one baker who loves his craft, and prides himself on doing it well. He’s candid in sharing about his recipes, which are all refined after “years of experimentation.” He has played with different sugars and fermentation timings to find the “perfect” sweet spot for his sourdough. He enjoys blending different types of flour to achieve his desired flavour profile, similar to what millers do. Even his sourdough is one of a kind: he started with an 82-year-old mother dough brought back from Germany, which he has cultured meticulously over the past nine years in a temperature-controlled retarder proofer.
“Different types of flour inject different textures and subtleties in flavour,” adds Nick. “And wheat itself has such a unique flavour, you can only fully appreciate it by chewing slowly for maybe five to seven times. To really taste the depth of flavour, I recommend new eaters to have a slice of sourdough with a very thin layer of olive oil. Skip the butter, because butter is so rich it overwhelms the wheat. Just go with olive oil and a touch of salt, to enhance the mild sweetness in the sourdough.”
Flour. Water. Yeast. Salt. The ingredients may be simple, but clearly the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Through Nick’s eyes, bread is not just sustenance or livelihood; it’s the taste of craftsmanship, honed over years of practice, in pursuit of a centuries-old tradition.
As the bakery winds down for the day, the master baker packs us off with a cheerful wave and a hearty sandwich each. 2.45pm. Outside, the sun is shining. As I round the corner, a café is playing classic tunes. How apt, I think, for what I hear is: “All you knead is loaf…”