James Grant: Composer and Artisan Baker
Every morning James Grant rises at 3 a.m. to bake bread. Bread made with artisan craftsmanship, patiently nurtured throughout a lifetime of practice.
“The baker’s life has always been one of work and reward. What begins as tangible—the work—has often over the years been transformed into something less tangible, because the rewards of baking are not just financial. The rewards can take the form of community service, personal growth, and often social and spiritual development. Coupled as it is with early and often long hours, the baking trade is a strenuous one that requires physical dexterity, finesse, and stamina. Years of determined focus and commitment and hard work are necessary in order to achieve mastery.” This quote taken from Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes written by his friend, mentor and teacher Jeffrey Hamelman, sums up in words what James Grant has discovered and fulfilled in life.
James Grant is a man of extraordinary passions, complexities, skills, and talents. His passion for baking awoke while he was working his way through college for a degree in music composition. After graduation, he took a job in a bakery in Northhampton, Massachusetts. There he met Jeffrey Hamelman “who would years later become the 76th certified Master Baker in the US and one of the best known professional bakers and teachers in the industry.”
In 1983, James Grant was offered an opportunity to work with Jeffrey Hamelman in Vermont in a new bakery enterprise. It was there that Jim, as he prefers to be addressed, began to learn the craft—the touch and feel of bread making that cannot be learned from a book. The skills required to transform water, flour, and leavening into a ‘staple of life’ can only be learned through long apprenticeship. In 2019, Jim Grant was asked to establish a bakery in the newly renovated Dwight Market and Pharmacy in a second-floor workshop that is his love and enthusiastic joy.
Jim’s journey from Baltimore Maryland to Dwight Market is as exciting as any action story or drama. While baking with his friend and colleague in Vermont, Jim was approached by a friend about an opportunity to earn his doctorate of musical arts and serve as a graduate teaching assistant at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Having spent his early life studying composition and musical architecture, Jim’s tenure at Cornell University garnered him much attention and great reward.
During his studies at Cornell, Jim continued to bake as a pastry chef throughout the summers at Three Mile Island Camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. He became famous for his creation of French pâte à choux (cream puff pastry) called swans that were loaded with pastry cream and topped with whipped cream. He called his creation “loons”.
After graduation from Cornell in 1988, Dr. Grant was appointed assistant professor of music at Middlebury College in Vermont. After four years of teaching, Jim realized that he wanted to be a music creator and composer. From 1994 to 1996, he served as composer in residence to the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra near Washington, D.C., and from 2000 to 2005 he filled a similar position with the Bay Atlantic Symphony in New Jersey. During that period and following it to the present, Jim Grant also worked on commissioned pieces for orchestras and ensembles. He is also a highly regarded teacher of young musical students aspiring to achieve similar status as a composer and academic.
Dr. James Grant’s compositions are creations of depth and rare beauty. He specializes in concert music for orchestras, choruses, chamber ensembles, and recitalists. Many his compositions can be found on his Soundcloud account.
Grant’s music pieces are deeply moving, filled with subtle and nuanced harmonious and melodic explorations. This is music that needs to be listened to carefully and experienced personally to appreciate the full depth and breadth of their beauty. One of his most recent commissioned pieces, “Earth – poem of thanks to our common home”, is a rich tapestry of musical reflection and emotion. Music composed with such sensitivity has a profound impact on any listener.
Despite his busy professional work as a composer, Jim Grant has always returned to baking as something essential to his life and perhaps even to his soul. In 2012, he and his wife moved from Toronto to live permanently on Oxtongue Lake. His wife, Elizabeth Siegfried, is an renowned fine arts photographer. Both she and Jim have resident studios in their home. Shortly after moving to the Algonquin area, Jim’s passion for baking overtook his main focus and he set up a small bakery in Algonquin Pizza & Panini in Oxtongue. Known as the Oxtongue Baker, Jim garnered a reputation for his fine pastries, in particular buttery croissants composed of 81 layers of dough and butter to achieve the very traditional, authentic “honeycomb” of the revered French pastry.
Jim wrote during the winter, sometimes taking eight months to complete the intricate work of his compositions based solely on the needs and purposes of his clients. Summers were dedicated to baking and in 2018 Jim began to provide his pastry delicacies and artisan breads to the Muskoka North Good Food Co-op in Huntsville. This collaboration led to an opportunity to retrofit a second-floor space in the Dwight Market as a bakery in 2019.
Jim uses a time-proven, traditional sourdough starter culture as the basis for his many bread recipes and some of his pastry. Tuesday to Friday will find him working on the various aspects of sourdough bread-making which requires fermentation time and a specific stretching and folding action to activate and enable the gluten to form the airy crumb and texture that artisan breads are known for.
Jim is particularly proud of his two new Rofco B40 bread ovens from Belgium, which allow Jim to bake authentic European-style sourdough and hearth breads. He bakes some 96 loaves of bread a week and prepares and bakes pastries for Saturday-only pick-up at the store. Of the many pastries offered, the chocolate croissant is a local favourite. Jim has a very beautiful suite of music named “Chocolates” which may be an overlap of his two passions.
“In the beginning stages of composing, we have a strong idea what we want the piece to be, that’s how we start off, we start off making it what we believe it’s going to be. At some point the piece takes over. The piece taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘thank you for taking me this far, now you just back away a little bit and let me inform you of what I need.’ And that’s where the magic happens! So that you come in the next morning, sit down at the desk, and you listen and follow the impulse and harvest and participate,” says Jim. “I’ve never felt that it’s my music, I’ve always felt that I am the caretaker of something, far bigger than I. Ultimately it’s a feeling of humility. Interestingly, it’s the same feeling I get when I unload an oven with bread. When I unload bread from the oven, it’s a feeling of humility I have that I get to participate in this completely magical experience.” In Jim’s words, his music and his bread are the same: a wondrous, inspired event passing through hand, mind, and heart unto and for each other.
“My friend, love is a verb. Love—the feeling—is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
Special thanks to the Oxtongue Lake Association newsletter, written by Lea Barker, and Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!