Friday, February 1, 2008

Let them eat bread

For celiac sufferers, Holly Beach provides gluten-free alternatives

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, February 2008
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Gluten-free Valentine’s Day Sugar Cookies

White or wheat? For perhaps as many as 1 in 133 Americans, the answer had better be “gluten-free.” And not just for toast, but for every sort of bread, pizza, muffin, pastry, cookie and pasta. Not to mention beer, imitation crabmeat, soy sauce, vitamins, medicine, envelope glue -- absolutely anything made with wheat, barley or rye.

That’s the estimate given by the National Institutes of Health of those of us who may have the genetic autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease. When a celiac sufferer ingests gluten, a protein in those common grains, the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, rendering that vital organ incapable of absorbing nutrients. No matter how much the person eats, they become malnourished. Results can include bloating and gas, fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis, seizures, mouth ulcers, infertility, emaciation or obesity -- and that’s just the short list.

In this country, where awareness among the medical profession is, mercifully, growing, celiac patients have gone years before being correctly diagnosed. An article in USA Today tells of a girl who didn’t grow an inch between the ages of eight and 16 -- when she was finally diagnosed with celiac disease and told to stop eating gluten.

The good news is that the small intestine can usually heal over the course of a few months, and the body can once again receive desperately needed nutrients. The bad news is that there’s no known treatment for celiac disease. Patients must abstain from wheat, barley and rye products for life. The amount of gluten present in just 1/48 slice of bread -- scarcely a crumb -- has been found to trigger an attack.

Lucky for Madisonians with celiac -- and also for those with gluten intolerance and wheat allergies, which are separate medical conditions -- there’s Holly Beach and her Silly Yak Bakery, located right next door to her (whole-wheat) Bread Barn on Mineral Point Road.

Since the early 1990s, Holly owned and operated a bakery in Rochester, Minn., which is, coincidentally, the home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic, a leader in medical research and treatment. In 2000, around the time celiac awareness was beginning to pick up, a patient from out of town dropped by the The Bread Baker asking if they might, perchance, carry GF (gluten-free) bread. Then another, and another. “I had never heard of the disease before customers started coming in and asking for GF product,” Holly explains.

For a baker with a B.S. in health education (UW-La Crosse, 1983), this was a call to action. But there were technical difficulties in creating wheat-free bakery goods. “My first attempts were miserable bricks and I backed off for a bit,” Holly remembers. “ But people were still asking for GF product. I could only say ‘I’m sorry’ for so long.” She rolled up her sleeves again, and didn’t stop until she had perfected some great gluten-free loaves. Then she found how hard it was to bulk-order the special ingredients she needed.

“I remember sitting in my office and crying after another failed attempt to locate ingredients and thinking about all the celiacs that had to deal with finding safe food every day,” she says. “Everyone had the right to walk into my bakery and enjoy bread!” She persisted, and soon, Holly had a gluten-free mail order business up and running “through referrals from the Mayo Clinic.”

Then, in 2004, a serendipitous business deal with the owner of Madison’s Bread Barn led to Holly’s buying that bakery and moving, with her husband, Miguel, to Wisconsin. “It was time for a change in our lives after each living 20 plus years in Rochester,“ she explains. “It all clicked. Within four months we had sold my Rochester bakery and townhouse and purchased the Bread Barn and a townhouse in Verona -- all during the holiday season.”

And then there was this: “I knew that by just being in a larger city I would be able to bake for more people with celiac disease.”

Vesna Vuynovich Kovach: How did you come up with your bakery’s name?

Holly Beach: “Silly Yak” is a play on words for celiac. Having celiac disease can be overwhelming, especially for children and parents. I wanted to lift the cloud, so to speak, and put some fun into celiac.

VVK: What led you to baking to begin with?

HB: My Grandmother Nelson was a very gifted cake baker and decorator. I spent many hours watching her create her beautiful cakes. My passion at that time was eating the delicious “cake crumb toppings” that came from leveling off the tops of her cakes. [After college] I moved to Rochester and opened a bicycle store. After 12 years I switched gears -- ha! -- to running a whole-grain bread bakery.

VVK: What’s most challenging about gluten-free baking?

HB: Gluten is the stretchy protein in wheat which allows the bread to expand like a balloon. Unfortunately, this is the culprit for people with celiac disease. We use xanthan gum [a specially fermented corn syrup] along with eggs to replace it. Over the years I’ve been able to develop bread that has a delicious, yeasty smell and taste, with loft and a soft crumb. Muffins and cookies are not so difficult, although they have their naughty moments.

Working with GF ingredients can still be unpredictable and we often scratch our heads in the kitchen wondering, “Now, why did that happen?” when we didn’t change the recipe at all!

We have been getting more requests for GF products that are also casein free, egg free, and yeast free. All of this takes so much time to develop.

VVK: What are some other ingredients?

HB: I try to use many high-protein and high-fiber grains such as amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, Montina [milled Indian rice grass, which is native to Montana] and buckwheat. Lack of fiber is a big concern for most people with celiac disease. I find that the community here in Madison is much more receptive to these grains. However, the Classic Rice bread is still our best selling bread. I’m very proud of our breads and the rave reviews that they get.

VVK: I’ve read that cross-contamination is a serious issue for celiac patients -- hamburgers can’t be cooked on the same grill as buns, fries can’t be fried in the same oil as breaded foods, and so forth. Since you’re running a whole-wheat bakery as well as the Silly Yak, how do you manage?

HB: When I first started baking GF, I set up strict handling procedures. All ingredients are in separate containers and kept in a separate area of the store. Separate utensils and pans are used, and washed and sanitized before each use. All surface areas are sanitized and covered. Each month I randomly test GF products for gluten contamination. By randomly testing products, I’m able to check our safe-handling techniques. We have not had a failed batch to date.

VVK: How does your Silly Yak business compare with your whole-grain operation next door?

HB: Forty percent of our total gross is from GF sales. In 2005 GF sales were only 10% of our total sales, so you can see that GF is growing substantially.

VVK: Who are your customers, and how do they find you?

HB: Our GF customer base is mostly local with about 30% being mail order – and that percentage is growing monthly. We get customers traveling through the area, and regular out-of-towners as far away as Chicago and Dubuque who stop in on a monthly basis. Our customers find us through Internet searches, word of mouth, and referrals from the Mayo Clinic.

To my knowledge, my oldest customer is 98 and hails from New York. My youngest is three years old and loves our snickerdoodle cookies.

VVK: Do your customers tell you of their health journey -- their struggles with celiac?

HB: Some customers come in with heavy shoulders, overwhelmed with the diet changes that they must make. Some are angry. I try to instill in my staff an understanding ear. Our job is to make life just a little bit easier for them.

Some of the most heartwarming moments for me are when customers come into the store and the tears start streaming down their faces. They can’t believe the selection! Some customers haven’t had pizza for over 20 years. And then to be able to offer them gluten-free beer [Lake Front Brewery’s New Grist and Budweiser’s Red Bridge]! Oh my gosh, they think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Also very moving for me was sending GF packages to soldiers in Iraq for Thanksgiving.

VVK: What are your personal favorites?

HB: The banana muffin! We make it with sorghum flour, and it just hits the spot without being too sweet. My staff loves our GF pizzas and we have been known to make large pizzas on a GF bake day for our own ravenous consumption. I also enjoy grilled cheese sandwiches with the tomato-feta bread and Reubens made with our Bavarian bread.

VVK: Any other great connections you’ve made in Madison?

HB: Very special to me is my collaboration with Bunky’s CafĂ© on Atwood Ave. in Madison. [Co-owner] Teresa Pullara-Ouabel has been very supportive of the celiac community and prepares wonderful pizzas and main-course Italian dinners that are gluten free. She is super high energy and helps keep me going mentally when I’m starting to bog down.

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