Meg Roberts’ entrance into the Bulkley Valley was largely accidental. Born in Australia, Roberts came to Canada looking for adventure, with the hopes of cycling and hiking across the country. But when she arrived during a cold and snowy November she quickly realized it wasn’t the proper season.
“I then thought I’d be a bit of a ski girl and then realized I wasn’t,” said Roberts. “I got to Vancouver and was really unhappy thinking I was a bit of a failure, so I phoned some friends in Smithers and they said, ‘why don’t you just come on up?’, and I never really left.”
It’s now been 30 years.
Like many who arrive serendipitously in the Skeena Region, Roberts had no real plans at the time. She liked what she saw on arrival to the Bulkley Valley and soon made her way through several jobs in the hopes of landing something more long-term.
“I worked many, many, many jobs when I first came here. I did work up at the ski hill, I wasn’t very good at it, I gave away too many tickets so I kind of got fired,” Roberts said with a laugh. “I then worked in the garden centre, I worked as a florist, I worked for a dentist, and then a doctor. Eventually I got into baking and worked a couple of seasons at the wonderful Fox Hole Bakery, which doesn’t exist now. That was my introduction into baking bread in volume, but I’ve always baked.”
By the early 2000s Roberts and her former husband had four kids and settled into a rural property just outside of Smithers. But her husband had lost his job with the government and they decided it was time for a change of scene. Being from Australia, the natural move was to head Down Under.
“We moved to Australia to a very rural and remote property and I wanted to keep baking because I really loved it and thought we would start a small bakery out in the sticks, literally in the middle of nowhere,” Roberts said.
While in Australia Roberts started to dive deep into the world of baking, specifically with wood fire. Not wanting to use gas or electricity Roberts soon came across the world- renowned wood fire oven designer and builder, Alan Scott.
“He’s this beautiful little humble man who’s built ovens around the world,” Roberts explained. “He built them in Whitehorse, Prince George. He came and helped build me an oven and I embarrassingly attempted to make some sourdough bread for him and served it and he said, ‘I can help you with that too.’”
Roberts was enamored by Scott and his philosophy around baking. “Alan believed there should be one of these ovens for every 300 people, and a farm to grow the wheat to service the bakery and keep the farming community alive and keep your community fed with beautiful bread. These are meant for micro bakeries, Rustica is a micro bakery and I have no intention to grow, I make a humble living.”
After Roberts – with the help of Alan Scott – built the oven at their homestead near the South coast of New South Wales, Australia, she started off small. As the kids grabbed the bus for school the bus driver would be loaded up with loaves of bread and deliver them along the bus route and into the nearby town.
“We were 50 kilometers away from the nearest town the size of Smithers, the closest Milk Bar (corner store) was 20 kilometers away on a very windy, dirt road. It was very rural.”
But as Roberts’ rural Australian bakery began to develop, issues with their property back in Smithers started to arise. The property, which they thought they had sold before leaving for Australia didn’t, and slowly circumstances gave way to their path back to the Skeena.
Roberts, however, had developed the baking bug and knew no matter what she needed to continue baking. So, the carport at their ranch on the outskirts of Smithers was converted into a bakery, they built another Alan Scoot designed oven and Roberts began mixing bread inside her house and marched it out to the carport.
Then tragedy struck and Roberts’ marriage fell apart, and with four kids to support, Roberts quickly became ultra-focused on her baking. “Not out of desire, but out of necessity to raise four children,” said Roberts.
Since 2008 Roberts has developed Rustica Bakery into a premier organic, handmade woodfired oven bakery that would give even Michelin star French pastry chefs a run for their money. But this is no 9-to-5 job. Elite baking requires complete attention and after more than a decade Roberts has it down almost to a science.
On a typical day Roberts is baking up a storm, providing an assortment of breads and pastries at various locations around the Bulkley Valley. Croissants that melt in your mouth, danishes that are too good they don’t last long, braided buttermilk and baguettes that just seem perfect, especially fresh from the oven. But it is the Saturday morning experience that truly expresses how incredible Rustica Bakery is.
When Roberts was baking and selling at the Farmers Market in Smithers she would work all night and day, and then peddle bike all the pastries and breads into town first thing in the morning. Usually by the time she got to the market a line at least 20 deep had already formed. By mid-morning dozens of people would wait patiently in line to select from the assortment of baked goods arranged in such an artful manner.
“I bake for the Two Sisters Café and deliver to them five to six times a week, and we have a lovely relationship, we’ve been together since the beginning,” Roberts said. “I also bake for the Green Zone Grocer in Burns Lake. I do a lot of private sales here at the bakery or deliveries. And now we have the bakery open on Saturdays for people to come down directly. This past Saturday I was literally baking and it was sold directly out of the oven and having to tell people, ‘do not eat that, you’re going to burn your mouth.’ So we have a better ability to produce down here and have more community activity.”
For the rest of the summer, hundreds of patrons will make the trek out of town to Roberts’ ranch – mostly by bike – to scoop up whatever delights are left by the time you get there. But this is just part of the end result, the amount of work that goes into these buttery creations can not be overstated and seems to never end.
Keeping the oven hot and ready for bread is more about experience than it is about training. Roberts works about 100 hours a week on average, prepping and backing almost around the clock, a gruelling schedule that just comes with the territory.
“The baking industry is brutal,” said Roberts. “But I think you either do it or you don’t. I still love it, but now the bakery has got to a point where my children are grown up and the bakery can support the community. Now we do lots of fundraising, last year we donated about $13,000 around the globe.”
Roberts has donated funds to the local Cycle 16 project that’s looking to build a dedicated bike path from Smithers to Telkwa, The Bail Project a non-profit organization in the US that helps pay bail for people in need, a bakery in Beirut that was damaged after a major ammonium nitrate explosion last year, and wildlife rehabilitation efforts following the 2020 bushfires in Australia.
Now that Roberts has raised her children, she wants to help raise the community and give back what she has been given.
“I’m incredibly supported by this community, they follow any change I take, so it feels like the right thing to do to support them back and the global community,” Roberts said. “Some of my ingredients come from around the world, I get my dates from Iran, why wouldn’t I support people in Middle Eastern countries or in Australia, wherever there is a crisis. I like to find projects to support, usually around food or human needs.”
Although Roberts is mostly self-taught – originally trained as a printmaker – she picked up the tricks of the trade, so to speak, from working with the Fox Hole Bakery, Alan Scott and her four-foot-ten Scottish grandmother.
But watching her move ever so smoothly through the bakery on a warm spring morning in the Bulkley Valley, shaping bagels and pulling braided buttermilk loafs from the oven, it is clear that Roberts is now the master and the passion to keep up the grueling pace is truly inspiring.
“I still get a thrill every time I pull something out of that oven,” Roberts said. “You mix flour, water and salt, put it in there, shut the door, and out comes magic. You could have gas, electric, steam injected, all these fancy things, but there soothing about woodfired ovens that are magic, I wouldn’t bake if I didn’t have a woodfired oven. They’re like a living creature, I trust it, put wood in it everyday, I have a very intimate relationship with it, and what comes out every time is a miracle.”