Bakery owner Alexandre Bettler reports back from a trip volunteering with Bake For Ukraine.
In December 2022 I met journalist Felicity Spector at my bakery, Today Bread in Walthamstow, east London. While I was showing her all our beautiful breads and pastries, what she really wanted to talk about were her trips to bakeries in Ukraine. Her father’s parents came to the UK in the early 1900s from Dnipro and the family connection (plus her love of food) led to her becoming a Bake For Ukraine ambassador.
Planning the trip
I had been following Bake For Ukraine on social media since the start of the war and really liked the idea of their work. Felicity told me she was planning another trip before Christmas and I felt an urge to go with her and help make bread for people in Ukraine. Since I started the bakery in 2016, our Bread For All motto has been a key motivation, but leaving my business and family at such short notice was not really an option. I contacted Bake For Ukraine anyway and told them I was interested in going to bake with them at some point.
The organisation was working towards buying a mobile bakery to use in and around Odesa, so a plan was made for me to help with setting it up. We started organising my visit for March 2023 but as the date grew closer, so did the front line. Odesa is a port city on the coast opposite Crimea, which had been annexed by Russia in 2014 and from where the Russian army was launching missiles across the Black Sea. It just was not safe enough to go.
Air raid arrival
We were finally able to organise my visit for September 2023, after Ukraine upgraded its air defence system. Luckily, this coincided with Felicity’s next visit and we managed to travel together. Following a long bus journey from Chisinau in Moldavia, our late evening arrival in Odesa was greeted by a drone alert. Imagine sirens sounding across a whole city, at the same time as alerts on your phone yelling ‘Run to Shelter’, with a bomb sign to underline the point. It was the beginning of a strange experience, where war was not always visible but always present.
The next day I met Maria Kalenska and Lena Vorozheykina, two of Bake for Ukraine’s founders. I was amazed by their energy, positivity and connections! Our first excursion was to the incredible market at Pryvoz, where traders from the whole region go to sell their products. It was a deluge of fresh vegetables, artisan food in every form and shape, with the best fermented food I have ever tried. Imagine the sweet and sour flavours of long-fermented, sweet, ripe tomatoes. It’s impossible to describe of course but trust me, I would do the trip again just for that.
Bringing bread to the people
One of the many amazing things that Bake For Ukraine has done is crowdfunded the purchase of a mobile bakery from a man called Vlad in Izmail, a few hours’ drive from Odesa. Over the summer, the organisation had refurbished it in order to travel to conflict zones and make sourdough bread for soldiers, refugees and other people in need. Having been born in Switzerland, I felt a funny connection with this vehicle as it had been built by the Swiss army in the ‘50s, when our country was afraid of an atomic attack…from the Russians. To feed their army in the event of nuclear war, Swiss bakers developed a long-life product called atombrot!
The idea of a mobile bakery had always felt incredible and it was magical to see this one in action. It is a Swiss army knife of baking, with a twin-arm mixer, proving cabinet, four-deck oven (that can be powered by gas, electricity or wood) and a proving trough, all cleverly organised in a tiny space with room enough for two bakers to work. What functional beauty.
Together with Oleg (a business manager who had started baking with the organisation before and after his day job), friends and other volunteers, we started organising the bakery ready for full production. I fell in love instantly with that miniature bakehouse on wheels. Initially we had to figure out for ourselves how that clever machine worked, until my dad managed to track down a manual from a baker in Switzerland who owns a similar vehicle.
Felicity delivered our first batch of 50 sourdough loaves to Kherson, around 100 miles away in an area recaptured from Russia. It was a ghost town under siege, where resilient citizens and charity workers were trying to rebuild while in constant danger of the enemy’s drones and missiles. This gave us confidence and we carried on our daily bakes, with the next batch going to a charity organisation in Odesa helping refugees fleeing a conflict area.
Hopes for the future
Sourdough bread is simple: flour, water and salt, but the joy it gives when shared with people in need is priceless. That glimpse of hope in people’s eyes when they receive it says more than the spoken word. It had this amazing power of making me want to go back and bake more.
Leaving Odesa after ten days was difficult, not only for all the delicious (mainly fermented) food, the beautiful city and the incredible people I met - resilient and optimistic - but also because I didn't want to stop baking. Seeing my years of breadmaking experience translated into such powerful moments made it undeniably worth it for me.
Since returning home, it has been amazing to see the work continue and the bakery grow, with my baking friend Oleg sending weekly pictures of his bakes getting better and better. I strongly hope the war will end soon but, if it doesn’t, I will happily go back again to help them bake. Please donate anything you can to Bake For Ukraine, I can vouch for their invaluable hard work. Peace and bread.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 57, January 2024.
Roots to Real Bread
Alexandre Bettler is hosting and speaking at the Real Bread Campaign x Roots to Work networking evening on Tuesday 20 February 2024. Find out more and book.
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Published Wednesday 24 January 2024
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