The earthy heart- warming smell of fresh baked bread greets you as you walk through the door at Souris‘ Minary Bakery. The walls are lined with a generous sampling of home-made offerings like whole wheat bread, cheese buns and jam-filled-sugar-coated doughnuts, heaven! And if this is your lucky day, sitting on an unassuming shelf to the right, quietly wrapped in cellophane, are the most scrumptious, delicious granola bars you’ll ever have the good fortune to taste.
The granola bars at Minary Bakery are one of Souris‘ best kept secret. Not everyone knows about these, humble sweet treats but owner, Darwin Minary says that even though these collections of oatmeal and ambrosia are a bit of a secret, it’s a real challenge to make enough granola bars to meet demand. „There are people that moved away twenty years ago that still come back and look for the granola bars and when the campers are here we could make granola bars everyday,“ he says. Darwin agreed to show me how me made these chewy bars but made me promise not to print the recipe.
An industrial-sized mixer is primed and ready as we head to the back of the bakery. „Wow,“ I remark. „Oh that’s nothing,“ Darwin responds, „here’s where we mix up the really big batches.“ He points to the table beside me which is actually a well-concealed super-sized mixer. Darwin sets to work, with the practiced hand of someone who could make granola bars in his sleep, he weighs ingredients one-by-one with a set of old-time scales. Without recipes or cards, measuring spoons or cups he expertly doles out each ingredient by feel. „My dad was a baker and I’ve done it all my life. It’s in the blood,“ he offers by way of explanation. Despite the lack of printed materials Darwin assures me that he does use recipes but then adds that, „I always eyeball it. It’s more of a feel.“
The mixer sets to work, combining each carefully measured ingredient. Darwin, occasionally stops the machine to scrape down the sides or add a bit more of this ingredient or that. Once he deems the dough just right he passes things off to his son Adam. Crumpled handfuls of dough drop onto the parchment-lined baking pans. A sprinkling of flour prepares them before they are deftly rolled into even layer a surveyor would be proud of. Then Darwin slides the pans into the largest oven I’ve ever seen. It is a monstrous convection contraption that has served as the heart of the bakery since 1956. While the bars slowly revolve in the heated space that is more ferris wheel than oven I ask Darwin about his life as a baker in a small town.
„The bakery trade is kinda like a lost art,“ he says lamenting the fact that so many people in Souris are trending toward one-stop shopping in Brandon rather than frequenting his establishment. „Support isn’t there the way it used to be for small town bakeries. It feels like we’re going to lose everybody to the big cites. You just can’t compete price wise with them so you gotta put out better quality goods because you can’t match the commercial pricing.“ Providing a high quality product has Darwin torn between what he knows is right and the demand for providing products like what the big supermarkets offer. ‚People complain that our bread only lasts for a week before it moulds,“ he explains. „The only way to get around that is to put mould inhibitor in but real bread should get moldy- it shouldn’t last a month and a half on the shelf before it get green. I just don’t like what those added chemicals stuff do to you.“ He recites a list of all of the extra ingredients industrially manufactured breads contain and despite the delicious aroma of baking granola bars I feel myself losing my appetite. „People don’t realize how processed the foods they buy are,“ he goes on. At Minary they’ve taken pains to use only unbleached flour and have only include mould inhibitors recently because of demand for a product with a longer shelf life. „The amount of chemical that goes into growing the crop and the amount of chemical that goes into making the flour white and the chemicals used to make the product last- I mean the natural bakers are having a hell of a time, the ones who refuse to put anything into it. You try to tell people that you don’t want to put anything into your bread but they say, ‚well why not? I want my bread to last.‘ So I feel like I have to put it in.“ Years ago people didn’t have the gluten allergies like they do now. Twenty years ago there was the odd person but it seems everybody has got that now.“
Darwin is interrupted by the beep of a timer. He clicks it off and pulls open the oven door for a look. One more time around ought to be just right and the door snaps shut. I decide to change tack and ask about how business is going. „In the winter time, if we are just relying on the town it’s brutal,“ he laments. „There are days that you could close early because you are losing money to stay open.“ Recent changes to food labeling laws have made things even harder. Darwin is now required to pay to have nutritional labeling made for any product he wants to sell outside of his own shop. „I phoned about labeling and spoke to someone in Ottawa who sounded like she didn’t give a crap. She said, ‚look, you’ve gotta put nutritional labeling on everything you sell in the stores and if you don’t then we’re gonna come in and pull it off of the shelves‘. If you get caught once, then you get fined so we just pulled our stuff,“ he says referring to the absence of Minary products from the shelves of the Souris Valley Bigway. Darwin hopes to have labeling done for some of the more popular items so that he can sell again at the grocery store but he says he just can’t afford to pay for everything.
Darwin pulls the granola bars out of the over and set them to cool by the fan. „Summer is good because we get the campground full and it’s like the town times two. The tourists like the sweet stuff and the hot dog and hamburger buns too. They come in here and say how lucky the town is to have a bakery. They always say, ‚our town lost the bakery years ago‘.“ Darwin hopes that he’ll never have to to close his doors. He loves his life as a baker and his enthusiasm for his craft is infectious. But he says that without local support, that may be a decision he’ll someday have to make.
The bars are now deemed cool enough for cutting- timing in a bakery is everything and the bars have to be somewhere between too hot and too cool to ensure the perfect slice. Adam gets the ruler out and like an architect, measures and marks the sheet as if they are a blueprint. „Mr. Perfect is the only one who cuts them,“ Darwin says as he proudly observes his son’s technique. „He’s very finicky because he says presentation makes the sale.“ The cutting complete, Adam carefully moves batches of gooey, delicious granola bars onto styrofoam plates and wraps them with cellophane. I will my mouth closed so as to prevent the drool from cascading down my chin. No wonder these things are impossible to keep in stock, the smell alone leaves me in need of a drink to rehydrate.
„Would you like to take one home?“ Darwin’s wife Cindy offers- as if I would even dream to refusing?! My diet can wait until tomorrow and I briefly consider whether I can eat all six of the bars before I get home so I don’t have to share with the kids. I thank Darwin and his family for taking the time to show me the magic. I feel elated and fortunate to know that in our small town we still have a bakery that cares about its product, that cares about its consumer and that tries very hard to keep up with the demand for these delicious granola bars. But now that the secret’s out I think I’ll have to get up pretty early in the morning if I want to get mine before they sell out.