Though we read news stories of millions forced to flee their homes and the Ukraine for safety, that’s not the whole situation. Right now bakers, cooks, front-of-house people and others are working daily to provide food to their community but also hospitals, army, the poor and anyone in need. I spoke with Anna Makievska, founder of Bakehouse artisan bakery in Kyiv which - as part of the larger Good Wine company - has the largest production artisan bakery making sourdough breads in the Ukraine. Bakehouse are still open, working and baking bread and making sandwiches, as the website tomato.ua says “for Kyivites and all those who remain in the city” as well as for humanitarian needs, hospitals, the army and soldiers.
Though the company's main storage unit, the warehouse where all their ingredients and stock was kept, was destroyed by shells from Russian tanks. They have managed to find flour and suppliers to keep baking in a limited capacity. The US baker Jonathan Przybyl, who owns artisan sourdough bakery Proof Bread in Mesa, Arizona with his wife Amanda set up a gofundme fundraiser for Anna as soon as he heard about the situation Anna’s bakery was in. You can donate to Proof Bread’s fundraiser for Anna here, and watch Jonathan's interview with Anna on YouTube.
I spoke with Anna via Skype and asked her about her concerns and her baker's work.
So are you, your husband, and your bakery employees in a safe place?
You know, the idea of a safe place is a very insecure prospect right now. For example, yesterday (12th March) all Ukrainians thought that Lviv and the Lviv region is the safest place in Ukraine. It’s in the western part of the Ukraine, very close to the Polish border, and a lot of people from Kyiv are now in Lviv and the region near it. But in the early morning yesterday there was a missile attack just near Lviv, with 9 people killed and more than 60 injured. Right now my husband is in Vinnytsya, it looked like a safe place but a week ago they also had a bomb go off at Vinnytsya airport. Nobody knows where the bomb will be fired tomorrow. And this is the main issue we are talking about as Ukrainians, not having the protection of our skies from other countries: Russia might destroy Ukraine totally. Today, the bombing was 25 km from the Polish border. Yesterday we didn’t believe this was possible. We thought the Lviv region was safe, and now we know that it is not. My husband might any day now be called up to be a soldier, and he’s put himself forward as a volunteer. He’s working now helping to sort and pack food for people in need, volunteering on a project to supply food to Ukrainians.
Usually the shift for the bakers starts at 7am and finishes at 5-6pm. But now we have a curfew meaning that people are only allowed to be on the street from 7am until 8pm in Kyiv. And the roads are filled with checkpoints now every 500 meters, when you must stop and show your documents to some military, police or someone who is looking after safety in the city. So for the bakers to travel to the bakery can take about 2 hours from their home, even though they live not that far away. So this means that the bakers start to work in the bakery around 9 or 10 am, then they have to finish around 4pm in order to get home safely before dark.
The shift is very short, and it’s very hard for the bakers to get to the bakery and home again. Also, the city is a war zone, it’s completely devastated and like something from a shocking movie about WW2. And also some of our bakers were previously living near the city centres in areas that are now occupied by Russian forces. For example, just yesterday two bakers joined our team because they finally managed to escape the war zone where they were under weapons fire constantly. So this is the situation. No one knows how it will be in this or that area of the city.
Why are you still baking, and haven't just closed everything down?
That's a complex question. We’ve already had recent crisis in Ukraine. The first was Maidan [Revolution] in 2014 when many people were killed, injured and our territories annexed. The storage unit for tour main company Good Wine was in Donetsk and we lost that. And what we learned during 2013-14 was that it was very, very important to keep working, to be there to smile to customers, to create a comfortable zone where they can come and buy warm baked things, and feel safe. So we felt then that we would “work until we can’t”. Then during the COVID time, some companies stores and cafes closed, because people were scared. But we didn’t close. During COVID we sourced the best safety protection we could buy for our staff, we did everything we could to keep working, we covered our employees' hospital and medical needs, everything we could. So this care is something usual for us. And if you have a city like Kyiv, in the centre of the Ukraine and the centre of Europe, and our bakery stopped working, this would be devastating for so many people, and signify “the end”. It would mean that we do not fight anymore.
Bread is a basic food for everyone, over hundreds of years, and this is something important in war time. Our bakers feel that it is much better for them on an emotional level to work rather than sit at home and be scared, constantly. In Kyiv we have the sirens that go off in the city, to tell people that this is a time to get to a bomb shelter. So for people sitting at home, they’re not watching tv but instead waiting until the next siren goes off and they have to leave their home and go to the bomb shelter. Anything from 5 – 15 times a day. With their children, with grandmother, their dogs. It’s very difficult to live every day like this. And all the bakers and cooks say that this is much easier, they’re all together, they’re working and don’t have time to watch the news. I see that the faces of the people who are still working look happier and healthier that those who have become displaced, or are refugees. I had a video meeting with 5 of the team in Kyiv and they are glowing, they feel they have important work to do, and they are working together and not alone. I’m only outside of Ukraine these last weeks because of my children, my newborn baby and my daughter. As a mother I didn’t feel I could stay in danger, I understand that some people do this but I couldn’t.
Has your baking changed during this time of war in Ukraine?
The bread that we’re supplying for free contains some yeast, and sourdough, because we need to make it very fast. It’s a loaf that Ukrainian people know as “Baton” [like a bloomer loaf]. It’s a bread with white flour, with some sourdough, with some yeast, a little bit of butter, and some milk in it. It’s a quite a nutritionally sound bread. Some critics have said that we should bake more wholewheat bread, because that would have even more nutritional value. But you need to understand the situation in the Ukraine right now. The white flour is much easier to source now during the military time, and it is much cheaper. It’s not easy to go by car now to our small supplier of wholewheat flour and get it. So we’ve tried to bake this bread with the easiest ingredients to source.
Our bakery was perhaps the only one in the Ukraine making artisan long-fermented sourdough bread on a large-scale, baking at least 1000 loaves a day. So we’re working on a big scale but almost all of our bread is, or was, made just using sourdough. Before the war we were making 25-30 different varieties of bread on our shelves, as well as different viennoiserie, pastries and cakes. Right now, during this war, we’re baking 5-6 different kinds of breads. In the early days of the war, just a few weeks ago, we didn’t think we would have any customers so we just baked one type of bread to feed volunteers, and on the shelf for the customers that came in we just had flour and sourdough starter for them to bake by themselves. But within a few days we understood that for customers baking bread at home was a long difficult process, and that if we sold bread then we would have money to pay the bakers. So we bake 4-5 breads for customers, then we bake another special loaf for military, hospitals, refugees, who ever needs it most on the day, or to the kitchens that are open to feed people. And that’s between 500-800 extra loaves that we bake each day.
The main problem we have now was that our warehouse was destroyed. It was the central store of everything, filled with 15 million euros of food and ingredient supplies. Russian tanks attacked it and we lost everything, it burnt to the ground and the firefighters couldn’t get there so nothing was saved. Also we had our new bakery, our pride we opened only last October which had taken three years to build, so beautiful, where the bakers were working up until the war. But because of safety we can’t work there now, it is in a very open part in the centre of the city, and has very large window facing outwards. So it would be extremely dangerous for bakers and customers to be in. For now it’s still ok, we have all our equipment in there, but we cannot work there. So the bakers are working in the old bakery, in the basement, near to government buildings and we know that this area of the city will be protected to the maximum level.
People are scared to work in the new bakery, so we only work in the old bakery, particularly as it’s in a basement. No-one can see how many people are working there, or how many people are inside. There are no windows so it’s almost like a bomb shelter. And they feel safe there. Well, “more safe” at least.