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On The Hunt For ‘Stewards of the Starter’ in Canada

"To what I love most ... love of order, beauty, the world, and the universe." ~ Amor De Cosmos 

Water Taxi


Along the Strait of Georgia, just north of the Cowichan Valley, take the Inland Island Highway north and exit onto the Alberni Highway-4A.  Follow it down the road, and you’ll bump into a beautiful town named Coombs.  Just ahead, you’ll see a string of cars and RVs along the roadside; make sure to pull over and park where you can. The beauty of Western White and Lodge Pole Pine forest overwhelms me with enchantment. 

The Living Forest Canada

As you approach the market entrance, look up and watch for Goats on the Roof. The Old Country Market shares local fruits and vegetables, meats, and packaged foods from the Cowichan Valley and other agricultural areas throughout Vancouver Island.  Once you’ve experienced the journey through the marketplace, pick up a car sticker and magnet with the infamous goat doing what he does best: fertilizing the ecosystem on the grassland roof. An experience I cherish with my family: being a guest in a neighboring country, sharing a meal - tasting the local food from hard-working farmers and chefs of Vancouver Island. 

Coombs Goats on the Roof

Vancouver Island is home to nearly 3,000 farms, and 700 are located in beautiful Cowichan Valley. The farmers are stewards to 18,000 acres (hectares). Victoria, Canada’s climate is perfect for agriculture and horticulture, and it’s known as Canada’s Garden City. The area is vibrant and full of life; agriculture and culinary arts are pillars of the food system in Northwestern Canada.  Food processing, education, brewers, and distillers positively impact agricultural equipment investments for growth—the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture estimates that for every Canadian Dollar receipt, two dollars are spent in local communities throughout British Columbia. What intrigues me the most is the food culture and the spirit of which the stories are shared in Northwestern Canada.


The Astral Van of Victoria 

In my quest for bakers on Vancouver Island, I recently met a man who has had an enriching life in food, especially artisan baking. I initially contacted him to learn more about his project, Seraphina’s Oven; we’ll touch on that later in the story.  I discovered a person rich with experience, the love and respect of his community, and willing to share his experiences in baking and food production with me. My mother always reminds me to never leave the house without ensuring you are dressed and prepared for the day ahead; you never know who you will meet! Much to my surprise, I stumbled upon the CEO of The Baking Association of Canada (BAC), and he was happy to share his experiences in baking and entrepreneurship.

Martin Barnett’s tenure dates back to the late 1970s when he relocated from the U.K. via the Caribbean, where he began his career in journalism and publishing. Arriving in Victoria, B.C., with $1,300.00 in his pocket, he bought a Sears step van, as he recalls, totaling $650, naming it ‘The Astral Van.’  He initially set out to use it for moving jobs with a friend, Graham, from the UK. Ultimately, they formed relationships with two food Coops, Amor de Cosmos and The Peoples Share Collective Worker’s Cooperative (PSCWC), to carry natural food goods and bakery items back and forth between Vancouver and Victoria. The Astral Van was the genesis of his company, Astral Moves.  

PSCWC made granola and bread in a shared bakery at Amor de Cosmos Food Coop. Astral Moves delivered the granola and other products to Vancouver and backhauled the raw materials to Victoria. Those best buddies and the Astral van became an integral part of the coop, which later expanded to build a stand-alone bakery and warehouse for natural food distribution, which opened in early 1979. The story has iterations and layers, and we were both keen to keep the conversation rolling while he troubleshot a computer failure and engaged desktop support through his service provider. It was a rough go, but he was happy to stay and chat while his service provider ran backup and restore activities on his cloud platform.

The Astral Van

A Rising Star

Astral Moves became an asset and delivery mechanism, the genesis for moving baked goods, like granola, cinnamon buns, and whole grain baked goods, to and from the local area. There was always a backhaul of raw materials from Vancouver to make the finished products at Brick Oven Bakery, developing into a sustainable business.  They loaded Astral a few times each week - drove to the ferry, and rode it over to make deliveries to the cooperative and buyers' clubs. That little business exploded, and together with a group of fearless partners and friends full of energy, ideas, and motivation, they secured a small warehouse and built a stand-alone bakery next door to Victoria West.

Martin Barnett - Astral Van

Two years later, in 1981, enterprises were split, and the PSCWC distribution collective separated from the bakery and retained the now Pacific Share Collective (PSC). Martin and his wife at the time, Nadine, stepped in to run the baking operations, and a few years later, that baking business grew to a place where discussions were again on the table to split the bakery away from food distribution. Those 1970s entrepreneurial hippies built PSC and The Rising Star Whole Foods Bakery, with support from the wider community, and serviced many retail and specialty food markets as well as retail customers. I forgot to ask what happened to Astral Van, but after twenty years, in 1999, Martin sold Rising Star Bakery and took a well-deserved break to explore career options in education. PSC is still the prime distributor of wholefoods on Vancouver Island and has blossomed into a multi-million dollar organization, still true to its original philosophy.

Sourdough Bread

Certifications Required 

Martin began certifying as a Provincial Instructor, and to gain the necessary work experience, he took a job at The Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria. From 1999-2002, he signed on to a baking position in the brigade kitchen. He then transitioned his focus to educating future bakers and the business of starting one's own bakery. He shared his experiences, teaching the practice of baking and building it into one of the best culinary education programs in Canada: Vancouver Island University (VIU), formerly Malaspina University College. 

THe Empress Hotel

Life Long Learning 

In  2018, Martin retired from VIU with his pastry chef wife, Angelique Silvestro, and they started Seraphina’s Oven with the support and sweat of the local community, together with their teaching colleagues. They founded the operation seeking new projects in baking at a more communal level.  They built out 350 square meters of professional bakery workspace for a bench and workstation while implementing the Alan Scott Design wood-fired oven model, Seraphina. 


Seraphina’s Oven became the gathering place for friends and family, post-secondary level learners, and bakers young and old - seeking to practice and teach the skill of bread-baking and making delicious granola, pastries, and amazing braided Challah bread. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, when in-person classes were suspended, it was a source of warmth and love for Martin and Angelique. They baked bread and pastries for the community, running pop-ups to keep feeding the masses when they needed it the most. 

Cinnamon Buns

Because of Martin’s involvement as a director with the Baking Association of Canada (BAC), COVID challenges forced a revamp of the BAC and closure of the bricks and mortar offices in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and the lay-off of long-serving staff members. As Martin was the ‘semi-retired’ director, he volunteered, and then was formally hired full-time, supporting through the organization through its changes. It is important to note, that he does have a ‘best used before’ date of 2025.  

Today, Martin not only manages the BAC, but he teaches the ‘Designing a Bakery Business’ course for Pastry Diploma Students at Vancouver Island University.  I asked him, “What is one thing you teach your students when building a business plan to start your own baking business?” He said, “Make sure to certify and seek all the necessary training offered to you.” 

Martin is grateful for people like Ken Harper, former Executive Pastry Chef at The Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria.  David Nolan, former Executive Chef at Ritz Hotels, and Aron Weber, a former apprentice at The Fairmont.  All these amazing people were colleagues at The Empress Hotel and Seraphina’s Oven; and are now teaching and running the baking program at Vancouver Island University. I, too, am grateful for the e-mail that created a Google Meet video chat, opening the opportunity to meet a brave-hearted baking expert in one of my favorite places in the world; thank you, Martin.


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