When Nicole Server came to Europe from her home in the Philippines to gain experience and continue her education as a chef, Kilkenny was probably the last place she would have expected to put down roots.

She was living in Copenhagen and interning at Noma, which was, at the time, the world’s best restaurant, when she met her future husband, Bart Pawlucojc.

Bart, who was also an intern at Noma, grew up in Poland. He had lived in Kilkenny for years and was keen to someday return to Ireland.

He and Nicole worked their way around some of Copenhagen’s finest restaurants, honing their skills and developing a passion for locally sourced ingredients.

Nicole says that the first time she ever tasted sourdough was in Noma. It didn’t just spur a her love affair with bread – perhaps unknowingly at the time; it led to her future at Arán, the popular artisan bakery and bistro she and Bart run together.

“In the Philippines, sourdough isn’t very common because it’s so hot – we always had yeast-based breads [growing up],” she explains.

“I lived in Italy for a year and the breads there were still yeast-based but – oh my God – the focaccia! Everything was so good.

“My first time trying sourdough was in Noma and it was life-changing. Copenhagen is a good place to be if you like sourdough because it’s so rooted in [Danish] culture.”

Alternately, having been raised on Polish cuisine, sourdough was a part of Bart’s life from the time he was born.

“We lived in a big 10-storey apartment building,” he recalls.

“My aunt, who lived on the bottom floor, would always make juices and yoghurts. I had another auntie in the middle of the building – she would make cakes and homemade cheese.

“Then my mom would make sausages, bake bread and pickle vegetables. My grandma would ferment and dry apples and make jams. Everybody did something; they all had their little plot of land. And there was always rye bread.”

After several years in Copenhagen, Bart and Nicole decided to move to Kilkenny to settle down and start their own business.

With experience in some of the finest dining imaginable, the culinary world was their oyster – perhaps surprisingly to some, they chose bread as their business.

“The concept was to make a difference by catering to everybody; not the selective few,” Bart says.

In fine dining, you don’t have to convince the 2% of the population who are willing to pay €200 for a set menu because that’s the whole reason they’re there

“So from the get-go, we could have been a good fine-dining restaurant, but we wanted to do something more universal. We’re doing this from pure passion and we’re hoping that someday it’s going to pay off.”

Nicole agrees.

“In fine dining, you don’t have to convince the 2% of the population who are willing to pay €200 for a set menu because that’s the whole reason they’re there – they already believe in what you’re doing,” she says.

“What we want to do is try to influence the 98% of the population who think that real food shouldn’t be ‘so expensive’.”

Bart and Nicola had both worked in fine-dining restaurants around the world, but decided to set up a food business accessible to all. \ Philip Doyle

From the mill

While developing their business model, it was almost divine provenance that led them to Kells Wholemeal in Bennetsbridge – a mere 10-minute drive from Kilkenny’s city centre.

Director Rob Moss had started a project with local farmer Thomas Butler growing heritage varieties of wheat to mill and eventually sell. Rob’s biggest problem was, he wasn’t sure local demand was there for these types of flours.

“We got into growing heritage wheat by chance,” he says. “We’ve always had a mill here in Bennetsbridge; making traditional wholemeal.

“We were looking to buy some new equipment so we went to Denmark and took a trip out to a farm to look at their machinery.

“They kindly sold us some of the heritage seed that they were using – we brought that back and convinced [Thomas] to grow the first field of wheat.”

“We grew 10ac the first year and didn’t sell it at all; then the spring conditions were wet into the second year so we scaled back,” he continues.

“Last year, we grew 20ac and this year is the first year that people really started buying into the idea.

“We [originally] estimated having enough grain to sell a tonne of flour a week; we didn’t quite hit that target but we’re able to supply flour to our clients who have pre-ordered.”

Rob Moss of Kells wholemeal with Bart and Nicole

It was fortuitous that almost as soon as Rob and Kells Wholemeal were able to sell their line of heritage flour, Bart and Nicole were preparing to open Arán.

When they met Rob and first used his Olands, purple wheat and Kilkenny rye flours, they knew their restaurant had to largely feature sourdough bread.

“Because they had been interning at Noma, they were familiar with Olands wheat and what we were trying to achieve,” Rob says.

“Bart and Nicole just embraced [our product] and basically made it the benchmark of their business. It was really good timing for us – and for them – and it’s been a great partnership.

“They’ve been producing beautiful bread and consumers have really embraced it as well.”

Rob believes there needs to be some kind of shared vision when someone wants to buy their heritage grains. Otherwise, they risk the product they work so hard to grow and mill going to waste.

Bart, as well as Rob, says that working with heritage grains is a labour of love – at times, it can be difficult, but the results are always worthwhile.

“It can be difficult to work with these grains because they’re from a single field; they don’t always behave in the same way,” he explains.

“The miller decides how he wants to mill the flour and sometimes it reacts differently in the sourdough (starter). Temperature is a big factor.

“When the winter started we had to tell people they were getting flapjacks – the starter wasn’t as active and the bread wasn’t rising the usual way.”

“A lot of people would get upset when we would sell out,” Nicole says of when they first opened.

“They’d say, ‘Could you not just make more?’ We’d say, ‘No – our loaves take 48 hours to make.’ A lot of work goes into making just one of our loaves.

Robert Moss of Kells Wholemeal.

A speciality

The process of making sourdough is completely different to that of yeasted bread and requires a lot of time for the dough to rest, develop and rise. At Arán, they cold-ferment their loaves for up to 48 hours to develop their distinct sour taste and wholesome texture. Putting so much work into just a single loaf; I ask: why bother? Why sourdough?

“Because it tastes completely different and the health benefits you get from the bread are so much greater than a plain yeasted dough,” Nicole says.

“The wheat we use is from 10 minutes away. We literally met the farmers who are growing our wheat; they’ve been in here. It’s a mind-blowing relationship because there’s so much we can learn from each other.”

“We wanted to serve bread, so how do we make the best bread?” Bart adds.

“This is how we were trained. This is what we know how to do and we know it’s the best way to do it. The purple wheat that Kells (Wholemeal) makes – there is no comparing its flavour after fermentation.”

When they first opened Arán in 2019, Bart and Nicole expected a trickle of customers and, hopefully, selling all 40 loaves of bread per day. Sourdough is still a new idea to many Irish consumers and, for Rob in particular, finding the right market for not just sourdough, but sourdough made with heritage grains is essential if he is to move forward with their product line.

Because of the composition of the heritage wheat varieties (with two rows of grain instead of four), the yield from one acre is roughly half the yield you would get from standard wheat.

There is some risk involved in this project, but for Rob – and for the farmers who now grow his 20-plus acres – it’s paid off in quality.

“In exchange for this lower yield, we’re getting beautifully tasting wheat with a really high protein content; pushing upwards to 13%,” he says.

“The wheat also has really good quality gluten, so we’re able to make fabulous bread. Everyone always said you can’t grow bread-making wheat consistently in Ireland – that was a myth we wanted to bust.”

Bart and Nicole currently use 100% heritage grains from Kells Wholemeal in their breads and will continue to do so as long as there is sufficient supply. Arán, having already made top restaurant lists in the short time since opening, has become a hotspot for bread, pastries and Kilkenny’s burgeoning breakfast and brunch crowd.

“Nothing is built in a day,” Bart says. “This place – we’ve gone with a different menu, different styles – all since we opened. We thought we’d be open for dinner in the evenings and that hasn’t happened.

“We will be doing regular pop-up restaurant events instead.”

“I find it so crazy; it’s the truth that your vibe attracts your tribe,” Nicole muses.

“(When we opened) we thought it would be chill; serving maybe 30 people a day. Then, on the first day, everyone started coming in and I was just like, ‘We need help. Bart, call everyone you know!’

“We needed the support and our friends and the community rallied.”

Operations during COVID-19

At Arán, Bart and Nicole continue to serve the community their heritage grain sourdough and yeast-risen breads and offer a takeaway menu. They originally closed for a few weeks while developing a new system to supply food to the community while putting in essential social distancing measures, including the installment of protective glass barriers to protect their staff. They also sell local food products to help support farmers and artisan producers during this time. Click here to visit their website.

At Kells Wholemeal, operations are running normally. Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, they closed their doors to visitors and allow only essential staff on site. They are offering a full range of flours and baking mixes for delivery on their website.

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