Ava Bread carries on artisan (and European) tradition

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Cinnamon raisin (center), rosemary and rye breads are only three varieties on Ava Bread’s menu.

AVA – Bread didn’t bring Dan and Agniya Grieve to the Ozarks, but it definitely brought the Ozarks to them.

Owners of Ava Bread, the couple relocated to southwest Missouri — from Panama — because the area offered a lifestyle they sought. They brought more, however, than their suitcases: A love of good bread also accompanied them, and turned into a business when they began baking in their basement.

At first, folks simply stopped by their home to purchase the artisan loaves, which are characteristically made in small batches, and with high-quality ingredients.

“… It’s not mass-produced,” says Dan. “And it’s not cheap stuff.”

Word (or perhaps the bread’s sweet scent) quickly spread. The couple currently supplies local stores — including MaMa Jean’s Natural Markets and Akins Natural Foods in Springfield, and Jean’s Healthway in Ava — with between 130 and 170 loaves of bread every week.

The business, however, didn’t really begin with the couple’s move to the Ozarks. Instead, it actually took off after a chance encounter the Grieves had while still in Panama.

“It’s not your standard story here,” jokes Agniya.

Before the Ozarks

The Grieves had some “layovers” on their journey to the Ozarks.  To begin with, they’re from completely different backgrounds: Agniya grew up in Belgium, while Dan hails from Michigan. The couple met while involved in Up With People, an organization that the Grieves say inspires young people to make a difference in their world. The year-long program took them across North America and Europe, allowed them get acquainted, marry, and eventually move to Panama.

While they were in Latin America, the couple wanted to make some money — and saw bread-making as a good opportunity.

“(We thought) about making bread because there’s no good bread in Panama,” Agniya says. “Just really mushy, Wonder Bread kind of stuff. And me being European, bread’s important.”

As it turns out, making the decision to bake bread was the easy part. “(Bread making) is not that easy, we found out,” Agniya says, a sentiment echoed by Dan. “We discovered that the (first) loaves of bread we made were pretty good bricks,” he says.

That all changed, however, on a bus trip home from neighboring Costa Rica.

Getting the recipe

It wasn’t the trip itself, however, that caused the change. Instead, it was a blonde, blue-eyed young woman on the same bus who seemed somewhat lost. When the group stopped for lunch, the Grieves asked her if she’d like to eat with them.

She said yes, seemingly grateful for the invitation. After the Grieves told her about their bread-making woes, however, they became the thankful ones.

“She said, ‘I have a recipe for you guys. Works all the time. People love it,’” recalls Agniya. And, after trying out, they found she was right. “It was easier than the breads we tried, and it was more forgiving.”

After implementing the new recipe — and adding a few tweaks of their own — the couple’s bread quickly grew in popularity at the local farmer’s market. “The market opened at 10, and we’d start selling at 9:30 because people were in line,” says Agniya.

Even other bakers at the Panama market asked the Grieves where they learned to bake.

“Well, we don’t want to tell you,” recalls Dan, laughing, of what he thought in his mind. “This girl gave us a recipe on the bus, we researched it online and here’s what we have. And people like our bread more than yours. You can tell from what is selling. But I don’t want to tell him that.”

Moving to the Ozarks

Despite their success, the Grieves were ready for a change after two years of living in Panama. “We looked all over, since we can live anywhere in Europe or the States easily,” says Agniya, due to the couple’s U.S. and European citizenships. Research — provided by a friend who was contemplating a similar decision — convinced the Grieves that the Ozarks was the right choice for them.

“He did all the research (and) narrowed in on southwest Missouri because there’s four seasons but the winter’s not too harsh, you can grow a lot of food, there’s a big water table here,” says Dan.

In 2011, the Grieves made the move. Their original destination, however, wasn’t Ava. It was Branson.

“My professional background is sound engineering,” says Dan, experience which he hoped would allow him to work with one of the city’s theaters. However, the Greives are Messianic Christians, meaning that they observe the traditional Sabbath — and that Dan chooses not to work from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

“And that’s the time when everyone wants to be entertained,” says Dan. “So on my resume, I’m available 24/6.”

That fact led the Grieves to move to their current home near Ava, and the need for money led them back to bread making. “We (had) to do something,” recalls Agniya, “We (had) this business model in Panama, so (we thought) let’s start doing that until we find something else, and people liked it.”

In those early days, the Grieves simply put a sign in their yard advertising fresh-baked, artisan bread. As the business grew, they expanded to local farmers markets and the stores they currently stock. But even though it’s the biggest market around, folks won’t see Ava Bread at Farmers Market of the Ozarks on Saturdays, reflecting the Grieves’ faith.

Baking the bread

The dough is baked in parchment-paper-lined dishes, preheated in the oven, to keep the dough from sticking.

In the past, Dan and Agniya baked bread together. However, with their 2-year-old son, Evan, now in the picture, Dan does most of the baking himself.

A small room in the basement is all they need to produce the bread. A former closet serves as the “proofing” room, where bread rises after it’s been mixed; commercial equipment, including ovens and a mixer that can do 16 loaves at once, fills the space. There are buckets and containers full of flour, water, salt and yeast, the four primary ingredients all of Ava Bread’s varieties are based on.

It’s nearly done.

“It’s a completely different recipe than the average bread recipe,” says Agniya. “This bread takes 20 hours or so from beginning to end, when normally a loaf of bread it’s three to four hours. It’s great because … the rising process is really slow, and it makes the nutrients and vitamins more available for the body to absorb and digest. And there’s very little yeast in it, and it breaks down the gluten in it, so some people who are gluten sensitive tell us that they can eat our bread just fine.”

That slow rising process means that no kneading is required. Another trick of the trade: When the bread is ready to bake, the glass dishes are preheated in the extremely hot, 500-degree oven. That temperature allows the bread’s crust to instantly start forming when dough hits the the pan. “That’s what gives it the European crust,” says Dan.

Next, bread cools.

When ready to bake, Dan uses a spatula to scoop the dough into each bread pan, each lined with parchment paper to keep the dough from sticking, and decorates the top of the loaves to reflect what type of bread it will become.

“I try to make them look nice because people shop with their eyes,” says Dan. “Having a consistent product — that’s the key. You know, if it looks different all the time, or it’s different sizes or it tastes different, it’s harder to sell because people don’t know what to expect.”

Next is baking, cooling, and enjoying the nine different varieties Ava Bread currently offers: Italian herb foccica, artisan plain, rosemary, multi seed, cinnamon raisin, dark rye, black pepper and olive, walnut, and walnut cinnamon raisin.

While the Grieves have made their own proprietary tweaks, all of the recipes are fundamentally based on the recipe passed along from their bus-riding companion — someone who has no idea of the business her suggestion resulted in.

“We could track her down if we searched through our email, but she doesn’t know what we did with (the recipe),” says Dan. “We could send her a loaf. She’d find it very familiar.”

Want to buy some bread?

In Springfield, Ava Bread’s products are sold at MaMa Jean’s Natural Markets and Akin’s Natural Foods. It’s also sold at Jean’s Healthway in Ava, at select farmers markets and via the company’s website.

To connect with Ava Bread, follow it on Facebook or connect via its website.