For anyone with celiac disease who wants to enjoy breads and sweets, it can be difficult at times to find quality products that are gluten-free but also delicious and of high quality. Since 2003, Lois Blaisdell has been one of the bakers in our region providing just that, delicious, high-quality products for those who need a gluten-free diet. West Meadow Farm Bakery, our featured local vendor for May, has grown quite a lot since its inception when Lois was working part-time out of her home. They’ve recently moved into a new space, and we spoke to Lois about the journey she’s been on ever since those humble beginnings. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you first get started?
I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1997, and we had in the area a really active celiac support group. We had meetings, and I started to bake for those, and then people in the support group would ask me to bake stuff for them, and I started doing that. By 2009, I had outgrown my home, so I had to move to a commercial spot.
Where was that?
That was at 34 Park Street in Essex Junction, where we were able to accommodate more wholesale accounts. The co-op was one of the first two accounts I had. That has in large part been the way I’ve grown, that and different companies have either heard from their customers or tried our products and reached out to me. I have had better luck that way than me going door to door.
What does that mean, exactly, if you are diagnosed celiac?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. It’s one of the autoimmune diseases that the medical community knows what triggers it, and that is gluten. They can say, ‘if you eliminate gluten from your diet, you will be fine,’ so that’s the treatment that you have to really follow, a gluten-free diet. One of my daughters was also diagnosed with celiac disease, so that was an event that propelled me further into doing this as a business. It’s tough to be a teenager and not be able to eat everything.
What is it you can’t eat when you are celiac?
Gluten is a protein in grains like wheat, rye, and those kinds of things, and it’s the protein that gives wheat flour its wonderful structure when you make bread. So, you find flours that don’t have gluten in them. For us, it’s brown rice flour, white rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch, but you need to replace the component gluten provides that gives the structure and stretchiness to your doughs. We use xanthan gum in our products.
You replace the flour, but you have to add that as well because the replacement flour doesn’t have the same quality to it?
Right. If you didn’t put it in, you’d get a real crumbly product and one that wouldn’t rise particularly well.
How different are gluten-free products from the same products with gluten? What’s the difference, if there is any?
The biggest difference to me, in baking, is the yeast breads. They’re quite different, as far as making them. With conventional dough, you can knead the bread, and you let it rise, and you punch it down and let it rise again. It’s dough that you handle with your hands. The doughs that we use for our bread and pizza crust are more like batters than they are like dough, so you end up scooping the dough into your pan as opposed to forming it with your hands.
As far as cookies, muffins, and cakes, those seem to be a pretty easy switch, with the flours. They sell cake flour that is characterized as a low-protein flour, so the gluten level in a cake or pastry flour is much less. It’s the strong flours, the semolina and things used in bread making, where you have to adjust a little bit more to get a stronger resemblance to that kind of flour. We have two blends of flour, proprietary blends that we have blended for us. One is a bread flour that has a greater amount of xanthan gum, and one is pastry flour, or all-purpose flour, that has a little less proportion of xanthan gum in it.
We worked really hard to get a good bread product. I’ve had employees who could eat wheat who would make comments about how our products taste so we could make adjustments. It’s reflected in the comments from our customers, that the products like muffins and cookies, you can’t really tell the difference. There are people who come to our bakery and say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t like gluten-free,’ and you give them one, and they say, ‘oh, that’s pretty good.’ And I do have customers who don’t need to be gluten-free, and they come because they like the gluten-free stuff.
Do you find there is more demand now than in 2003? Are there more folks coming to you saying they are celiac or looking for gluten-free?
I would say so. It certainly hasn’t gone down. I think the medical community is diagnosing it more frequently, and they are more attuned than they use to be. There’s another diagnosis, gluten intolerance, where maybe they aren’t tested to have celiac disease, exactly, but they have a reaction to it. Those are our primary customers, but there are also those people who feel that eating gluten-free is advantageous to them, like athletes and other people who just feel better when they eat gluten-free. There is the population that needs to eat gluten-free and then quite a sizable other group that just thinks it’s better to eat this way.
You have a new retail location in Essex Junction?
We moved our bakery from 34 Park Street to 4 Carmichael Street. We have more space. We have a restaurant license so we can have seating and people can come in and have coffee or tea and a muffin. Our situation is nicer for walk-in customers than it used to be. We just opened the new location in March, so we’re still working out the kinks.
Is there anything else you would like our shoppers to know about your company or your products?
We are certified gluten-free through the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, so that distinguishes us as well. You go through an approval process of your ingredients, and all of our ingredients are gluten-free. Our entire facility is strictly gluten-free, that’s all we do, there is no mixed use.