We were living and working in between Italy and Southeast Asia for much of 2014 and 2015. We decided to settle down in Singapore and embark on a culinary adventure. Peppe fell in love with the local cuisine but wanted to continue experiencing the countryside flavours that he grew up with. Recalling afternoons spent with his grandmother while she prepared flatbreads and wholesome sandwiches, he wanted to make these memories part of his life. We spent the summer of 2015 visiting several traditional bakeries in the South of Italy, picking up tricks of the trade, reading up on various bread-making techniques and trawling baking forums for grandmothers’ secrets. More importantly, we reacquainted ourselves with the lievito madre (wild yeast culture) that was handed down by Peppe’s grandparents. It was the key ingredient that gave breads character, improved flavour and texture, and was chock full of healthy microorganisms. We carefully brought it back to Singapore and learnt how to manage it in this hot and humid climate. When we decided to start sharing the goodness of our lievito madre with more people, the name of our little bakery was naturally otiveiL – Fawn has a penchant for spelling things backwards. Our weapon of choice? Good old rustic focaccia.
In December 2015, we moved into our rented flat, and bought a mixer and an oven. We organised tasting sessions and sponsored focaccia at some events to gather feedback. We started receiving orders, and were happy to experiment with new flavours. By word of mouth, we got more and more orders, and enquiries if we could do sandwiches, breakfast platters, plain loaves, etc.
We spent the first three months of 2016 letting more people try our focaccia, working on our recipe and building up a network of loyal customers. We tried out various pickup points and menus, did some corporate events, and figured out our next steps.
On 1 April, we moved into our shared kitchen at Geylang, and the mixer and oven went into full swing. The next day was our very first farmers’ market at Open Farm Community! Graduating from home equipment to more industrial size ones was daunting and we had a very stressful weekend in the kitchen. But OFC was a success!
Now that we had a licensed kitchen, we could go out there and actively reach out to more people. The learning curve was steep as we managed both operations and business development, but we were always encouraged by the response from our customers, many of whom had become our ambassadors. Thanks to them, in mid-April, we started supplying our loaves and mini focaccia at Little Farms. Fred’s unwavering support gave us the courage to continue sweating it out in the kitchen.
In the following months, we continued participating in markets and demonstrations, and organising and testing out pickups points on different days of the week. Any time outside the kitchen was a good time for us, as we got to meet and share our love for rustic food with like-minded souls. And of course, the menu was constantly updated with both traditional and more unique toppings. We gained more confidence in the kitchen as well, tweaking our recipes to create loaves, focaccia and sandwiches with the right combination of chewiness, fluffiness and crustiness. Definitely, it was our customers’ constructive feedback that gave us the motivation to keep making better bread. Our sandwiches and focaccia were also served at amazing places such as coworking spaces, the LinkedIn office and at a whole host of events ranging from hackathons to conferences.
Our sandwiches were getting increasingly exciting, and we also included sides such as salads, stews, and baked/grilled/sautéed treats. As we received more sandwich orders, we also had many requests for Italian dishes to accompany the focaccia platters. We were delighted to earn the trust of old and new customers and whip up dishes like meatballs marinara, parmigiana, pasta al forno, gnocchi…and create salads with fruits and nuts and special dressings. Apart from bringing trays of yums, at times we stayed to help serve the food and regale guests with stories from the Sicilian countryside.
At the end of October, we participated in our biggest event ever – the famous Kranji Countryside Association Farmers’ Market. An endless stream of interested visitors throughout the weekend kept us extremely busy and we were up from Friday morning till Sunday night to make sure everything was in order. It was a truly amazing experience, and we were very inspired by the Singapore farmers and artisan vendors at the market. Their commitment to the value of the land further fueled our resolve to go down the supply chain and work closely with farmers and millers in Sicily.
We started learning more about the difficult agricultural situation in Sicily and delved into the world of ancient grains and the art of stone-milling. The benefits included low gluten index, toxin-free, and non-GMO – coincidentally the concerns our customers had been raising during our conversations on food. Stone-milling also ensured that all the goodness and identity of the grains were preserved. So we brought over bags of these ancient grain flours from Peppe’s hometown and started using them in our recipes. The results were very promising and we were proud to share them with our customers.
Meanwhile, our kitchen hit full capacity. We were baking from dawn to dusk and the oven and fridge just did not have space for more loaves. We couldn’t grow the business anymore as we couldn’t increase production. We had seen this coming, and had already started planning for this and talking to our customers about potential developments. During a rare break from the kitchen, we had a deep think about what otiveiL meant to us and what direction we wanted to take. Did we just want to produce more pieces of focaccia as efficiently as possible?
We wanted to ensure a worry-free eating experience for our customers and their loved ones. It was time to take a step back and go explore the very fundamentals of what we eat. We missed the connection with the land and primary ingredients.
We started sharing about ancient grains during farmers’ markets, letting people touch and smell the them, and explaining how to use them in various recipes. We also made fresh pasta that maintained its chewy texture throughout the cooking process. We were on to something. In another leap of faith following a series of coincidences regarding our shared kitchen in Singapore and developments in Italy, we moved on to otiveiL’s next project!!