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From Luxembourg to the Oxford Farmer’s Market: Miami Merger operates pop-up bakery

Birch Creek Bakery, owned by Sasha Symon, first appeared at Oxford’s Farmers Market on a dark, cold January morning 14 months ago, when only the most intrepid of shoppers and growers were there. Sasha and her husband, Mike Symon, have quickly become fixtures at the market, offering artisan bread and pastries Sasha bakes. I buy one or two loaves and pastries from them every week.

Sasha and Mike were a “Miami Merger” three decades ago. When Mike returned to Oxford from Miami University’s Luxembourg campus, he was invited to a party by another student returning from Luxembourg. Also at the party was the roommate of Mike’s friend, Sasha.

The Symons live in Loveland, where they both hold full-time jobs in business, and they hadn’t been back to Oxford since graduation. After Sasha took up baking artisan bread and pastries, they started coming every week to Oxford’s Farmers Market. 

My favorite is the organic whole grain stone milled sourdough bread, and I sometimes add the Eastern European rye. These are densely packed breads, twice as heavy as regular loaves, weighing nearly two pounds.

Sasha uses certified organic flour from Janie’s Mill in Ashkum, Illinois, where the kernels of wheat are ground into flour on a 3-foot diameter wheel-shaped mill stone. This ancient method of milling wheat grinds the whole wheat kernel, whereas modern industrial rollers typically strip away the nutrient-rich outer bran and germ, leaving only the interior endosperm.

I also take slices of Sasha’s Gâteau Breton each week to the French Club at Oxford Seniors, which attracts several of us intermediate-level French-language speakers, under the wonderful leadership of retired Miami French Professor Michel Pactat. Gâteau Breton is a very labor-intensive cake made with lots of butter, native to Brittany, France.

I recently asked Sasha how she got started with time-consuming artisan baking. I expected a standard response, such as “I watched my mother bake,” so I was surprised when Sasha responded that she learned to bake because of Rwanda. That response clearly needed more elaboration.

During the 1990s, Rwanda had been the site of the most notorious genocide in recent years. In a country of 7 million inhabitants, more than a million perished, and another 2 million were forced to move.

A decade ago, Sasha and Mike decided to take a holiday in Rwanda, a country only one-fourth the size of Ohio, but filled with breathtaking landscapes, including 12,000-foot-high mountains and pristine lakes. 

Sasha and Mike were well aware of Rwanda’s tragic history and thought that healing would have occurred after 20 years, but the people they encountered were still traumatized by the genocide. It was difficult amid the suffering to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, so they returned home earlier than planned.

Back in the United States, they decided to spend the remainder of their vacation from work doing something completely different. They signed up for baking lessons at King Arthur Baking School in Norwich, Vermont. 

I asked Sasha why she does so much labor-intensive baking after a week of hard work and then drives to Oxford’s Farmers Market early every Saturday morning instead of sleeping in. Her response: “It’s cool being here in Oxford. I work from home, and see no other humans all week (unless you count my husband).”

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Jim Rubenstein is Professor Emeritus of Geography. At Miami, he was Chair of the Department of Geography and Advisor for the Urban & Regional Planning major. He now writes human geography textbooks and consults on the auto industry at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. In Oxford, he is Treasurer of the Board of Directors of MOON Co-op Market.