GODERICH, Ont. — Not even a natural disaster was enough to snuff out the historic bakery oven that’s been part of this southern Ontario community for the past 135 years.
An F3 tornado, the strongest to strike Ontario in many years, tore in from Lake Huron on Aug. 21, 2011, a Sunday afternoon when the business was thankfully closed.
Goderich’s unique octagonal downtown core looked like a war zone in its wake. One person died and 37 were injured.
Culbert’s Bakery was extensively damaged, its store front obliterated.
However, the heart of the business, the brick oven, managed to survive the 320 km-h winds, although the flame went out for the first time in more than a century.
Owner Darin Culbert was initially concerned that the 18 by 25-foot oven with its 18-inch thick brick walls would collapse on itself once it was allowed to go cold. Repairs, renovations and upgrades were completed 10 months later, and the business reopened.
Culbert said customers were lined up outside the front doors at 6 a.m.
Apart from its conversion to natural gas from coal and the addition of temperature controls, few changes have been made to the Goderich, Ont., bakery’s 139-year-old oven, says Darin Culbert.Pastry temptations have made Culbert’s Bakery a landmark business. | Jeffrey carter Photo
“We’re been around here forever. We became even more famous after the tornado. As it turned out, it was a real boost for us,” he said.
“I’m the third generation. The guy that just walked in here is my son, Evan, the fourth generation.”
The property on which the bakery sits was bought from the Canada Company in 1832. David Cantelon founded the business in 1877 and four years later built the oven that continues to be used today.
The Culbert family became involved in the 1930s when Darin’s grandfather began to learn the trade as an employee.
He bought the business in 1942 and it’s been in the Culbert family ever since.
Few changes have been made to the oven other than a switch to natural gas from blue anthracite coal and the addition of temperature controls in 1988.
“There’s not many of these left, but it still pays the bills,” Darin said.
“That oven has only been turned off once. It’s always hot.”
Experience is required to operate the oven. There are hot and cold spots, and Culbert and his employees need to know where to place each product on the interior bricks.
The first items to go in are the last to come out; the last in, first out. The cycle is repeated up to 15 times a day when summer business is booming.
Culbert said his knowledge of when to remove trays of goods from the oven has become instinctual. It’s the matter of his inner clock and sense of smell.
He doesn’t have much time for sleep. He’s first into the shop, just downstairs from his apartment, around 1 a.m. Employees — there’s a dozen or more in the summer — start coming in an hour later.
“I grew up in it. Basically I started when I was 15 and now I’m 51,” he said.
“It’s getting better now because my son knows a lot too. He’s starting to take the reins.”
Recipes, which include ingredients, weights, temperature and timing, have been written down. However, some key details are only in Culbert’s head.
The bakery uses high gluten flour from Alberta that is bought from Parrish and Heimbecker. As ingredients have evolved over the years, so have the recipes.
The results are breads, rolls, cakes, muffins, tarts, pies and doughnuts that excel in a community that loves its sweet baked goods. Remarkably, three franchise doughnut shops also operate in Goderich, all part of a chain familiar to Canadians.
Goderich has a population of 7,500 and serves the surrounding rural area and a significant tourist industry. Located on Lake Huron at the mouth of the Maitland River, the community is a port town that accommodates lake and ocean-going freighters, some of which carry salt that has been extracted from beneath the town for more than 150 years.