Maya Handley created Florets to share the magic of sourdough, the nutritional loaf. Located in Grey Lynn, Tāmaki Makaurau, Florets sandwiches are, in themselves, an art. In her profound offering, there’s an intent focus on sourcing and a curiosity for working with niche organic grains. The respect for the ingredients is felt deeply in all she does. Here we discuss the promise of organic agriculture, supporting local food systems and placing people over profit. Bread has never tasted better.
Have you always been immersed in the world of food? How did you get into bread?
I was not always in the food world, but interested in eating and organics. Yes. When my husband, Derek and I moved to the United States, the organics movement had been substantial for decades in response to their food systems being industrialised early on. Initially, I was living in California, which is an agricultural state. It was eye-opening in terms of exposure to different farming practices. At that time, there were well-established organic food markets. In California, near where we lived in Santa Monica, there are two large produce markets. I would visit them weekly and talk to growers; it was here I understood what organic agriculture meant.
Later on, we moved to Brooklyn, and when Finn, my son, was small, we bought a house in upstate New York, an old agricultural region—primarily dairy farming. Much of these dairy farms were now non-viable, the result of centralised agriculture, so it was the beginning of a new wave of agriculture when we moved up there. Young people interested in farming were establishing small-scale farms, there were people growing grains and wheat, and we had access to wheat and grains from small-batch farmers who were also stone milling.
Ahead of Finn starting school, we rented out our apartment in Brooklyn and moved upstate permanently. I had become interested in growing food and now had access to local grain. I then met Sarah Owens, who was, at the time, running weekend workshops in New York, which was an opportunity to learn and develop a broader skill set. It was here that I met other people with similar interests, which was highly inspiring.
What encouraged you to return to Aotearoa and open up Florets?
We had decided to move home because Finn had just started school, and we wanted him to grow up in Aotearoa, closer to our family network. That was the main driving force. We also wanted to contribute to our home community. It takes a lot of energy to live in New York, and we wanted to direct that energy here.
When I returned, I continued to learn a lot. I had not worked with grains grown here, and I was unsure if there was a market for the type of bread I wanted to make. I was interested in creating nutritional loaves, so organic ingredients, whole grains and a slow fermentation process are essential. It is more challenging to make a satisfying nutrition-rich loaf because you are working with whole-grain flour. All of the bran is in the bread. Bran cuts away at gluten development—essentially, what provides loaf structure. So this approach requires different techniques if you want to achieve a satisfying texture. Often whole-grain bread is very dense, so I needed time to refine my technique and experiment with different flours.
I started baking at home in Titirangi, asking friends and people within my community to subscribe to loaves, which I would deliver weekly. When I was more confident, I began selling loaves at the Titirangi and Oratia Farmers Market. It was a little lonely not having a team to work with and not having daily contact with customers, and I wanted to expand and have a physical location where people could buy the bread. The delivery aspect of our business model was not financially viable. Still, when I opened deliveries for central, there was greater traction. There was an interest in what I was doing. It resonated.
Modern farming and industrialisation reduced the quality of a typical loaf. Why sourdough? Why fermentation?
Your typical supermarket loaf is a highly yeasted bread with added sugars produced from a commercialised single strain of yeast which is very fast at leavening bread. With sourdough, you work with multiple wild yeast strains, and you need a longer time to ferment. Slow sourdough fermentation breaks gluten (protein) down into amino acids, and your body is more easily able to digest it. Plus, the yeasts in sourdough culture have a long time during this fermentation process to predigest lots of the sugars in the dough, making the loaves much lower in sugar.
Natural yeasts digest sugars, converting them to carbon dioxide, which leavens bread. A slow fermentation process allows the yeast a long time to pre-digest sugars producing bread with fewer sugars as a result. There is not that energy slump you get from eating a high glycemic product. People with gluten intolerance will more likely be able to eat and digest sourdough without bloating and discomfort. Gluten is highly prevalent in our modern Western diet, in processed foods which may contribute to gluten intolerance.
Your ingredients are organic, and you are working with many smaller producers. What have been the opportunities and/or challenges of sourcing locally?
We work hard to buy local organic ingredients where we can. It is a core principle for us to support growers that are not harming the land they farm; in this way, we know we’re paying the true cost for our ingredients. The produce is delicious. The cheese we buy from Hōhepa and our milk is sourced from Durham farms. It is Jersey cow milk, and there is such a noticeable difference in taste and texture. Our tomatoes are grown in West Tāmaki Makaurau. We feel privileged to share these products with our customers. We are very proud of our offering and very grateful to our customers for their shared passion for organics and supporting local agriculture because it does come at a financial cost.
We also have the opportunity to meet with producers who are equally supportive. We’ve developed relationships with our suppliers, and when we have had difficult weeks, it is these relationships and the feedback from customers that have been incredibly rewarding. It is a real privilege to use these ingredients. The flour, for example, while challenging, working with that week in and out is very satisfying. And when everything comes together well, you also know that the nutrition component is there, which was my intention for bread making.
And challenges. It is challenging working in a highly inflationary environment. Small producers cannot absorb these increased costs, so you are paying the true cost. So that has been stressful, and logistically, there are many orders to place, small orders, and many deliveries to follow up on, which can get time-consuming. You want to order everything you need but not too much because we don’t want to waste anything.
It is interesting people would rather fortify foods as opposed to preserving agricultural biodiversity where we can obtain these nutrients. What is your vision for the future of agriculture?
I love watching Country Calendar and seeing how different farmers are working more efficiently. Ultimately, every time I read or watch anything, it makes sense to move towards organic. You achieve much more nutrition for humanity, nutrition from far less food. From my perspective, Aotearoa would be poised—knowing what we know about climate change to embrace organic agriculture. Our government should move to non-chemical farming, so we achieve greater biodiversity, positioning Aotearoa in a valuable position in terms of what is happening globally.
When we visited Kelmarna recently, one of the gardeners explained the process ahead for a market garden established to produce Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) subscriptions. She explained that, within time, once the soil is working more effectively—a combination of crop rotations, soil management and mulching, that once they reach this point, each ten square metres per C.S.A. feeds 30 families and requires two full-time gardeners. And at that moment, it struck me how much land is necessary to feed people. Both my parents are from dairy farms in Waikato, they lived off their land, so I understand how hard you have to work. If the government supported our farmers, I just feel that could only be a positive. That was why I wanted to buy grain from the Canterbury grain farmers. Canterbury is a fantastic climate if you want to grow grains, but terrible for dairy farming, so we have to support those farmers working in a more harmonious relationship with our environment.
For me, Florets is an experiment. I did not want just to create a bakery but to uphold my ideals for growing, consuming organics, and paying people well while building a business. Once you get into the reality, you start understanding how difficult this is — for us, it has just been one year, and I now see why so many things get sacrificed along the way. When I started selling bread, people were sometimes shocked at the loaf price. People bought them if they could afford them because they loved the flavour, and from week one, I had repeat customers who said they ate it. It lasted several days, they felt nourished by eating less, and ultimately the bread felt like it was good value. It is about reframing value.
I used to write the weight of the loaf, like with cheese, and meat, to communicate how much grain was in the bread and that it was organic, milled by stone in small batches. Then you start thinking about the weight of what you are buying. Still, we get comments that the bread is expensive, but I hope that once people eat it, they feel well-nourished and that there’s a sense of value in what they have received. There is also the environmental weight of what you relieve through organics. It is a slow movement, but once you start investing, it is hard to go back and then that $7 loaf may seem expensive because you don’t have the nutrition you need.
Your friend, Freya de Beer Smith of Pomona Deli, shares kitchen space for cooking and preserving and has more recently begun hosting a Suppers Club upstairs. Florets in many ways, is the product of a supportive and collaborative environment. Was this intentional?
Freya is a trained pastry chef but is more interested in savoury foods. She also has a keen interest in locally sourced ingredients and foraging. Freya was thinking about starting an online deli and had reached out initially, wanting to retail the bread alongside her offering. I love it when Florets can be used for other creative projects, and Freya’s Supper Club is a perfect example of that.
The sandwiches and toast options are beautiful. Who is responsible?
Freya put her website project on hold, and I approached her, asking whether she wanted to design a seasonal sandwich menu. So Freya does the sandwiches, she makes them some days and also makes the deli products. We overlap, and it is a nice natural partnership in what we want to share with people and the suppliers we want to support.
I am incredibly fortunate to have met her. We joke that she is a sandwich artist —she is very good at what she does and highly motivated. In doing this work, for Freya, some of the fun is in sourcing ingredients, getting deeply seasoned in thinking about what is great right now, in abundance. These nuances—we’re not sure how essential to the customer they are, whether that is needed, but it comes naturally and motivates Freya, I think.
And your favourite so far?
I eat a lot of bread and mostly rye at work. Usually, I have a thick slice as an open sandwich, and Freya makes me something with what is in the fridge. Freya’s macadamia feta is also delicious, she uses locally grown macadamias, and the tomatoes we have right now are very good.
Can you offer any tips for those wanting to make sourdough at home?
I learned from home, so I know that journey well. You have to be patient. Most bakers that start at home make dense unpalatable bread in the beginning. You have to understand the different stages of fermentation and know what they look like. Your outcome will depend on your culture, time and temperature and also the humidity of the environment in which you are baking. Select a very simple dough formula and keep baking that over and over again.
When you achieve an ideal crust crumb and mouth feel, you understand the fermentation process—when to bake, shape, divide, all the steps and when to move on. Each dough has a different feeling, so if you start incorporating other things, it takes longer to get that intuitive feeling for sourdough. After baking hundreds of loaves, I came to understand the nuances. You also need to possess an innate interest. You have to be around the house all the time with sourdough. It can be quite disappointing initially, but if you like it and get something out of it, you will see improvement.
What’s always in your pantry, your fridge?
I have just started sharing a CSA with Bridget, who works with us at Florets from OMG, and I am so pleased. I have not had the time to pick it up, but Briget collects our box, and we split it. It is such a pleasure to eat their fresh veggies. The taste is so different. And the salad, I love the herbs, and it changes and tastes different each time. It is wonderful to have access to this at the moment. So I am eating lots of radishes from OMG on bread with salt and olive oil.
I eat pretty simple food, but a friend of mine, Akiko, recently released a Japanese recipe book based on her Mothers' recipes, called Mother Tounge. While Japanese, it is written for an international audience so that you can access the ingredients. There is a great salmon rice pot. My husband makes this once a week. We use Japanese white rice mixed with seeds, which is really satisfying, salmon, radish, and whatever else we have on hand. I always have yoghurt for breakfast with nuts and seeds. And I eat dairy, so I like to have good butter. Danbo cheese which I purchase from Hōhepa with eggs, is another regular.
Who or what is inspiring you in the food world right now?
At the moment, I feel I am too inwardly focused, rarely coming up for air or inspiration—that is the one thing I think I am missing. The first thing that comes to mind is the other food producers we work with. I know how much time and effort is required in making bread— Our work is rewarding but repetitive, and you are very much physically involved.
Each day you must mentally prepare to give it your all. Thinking about those farmers, rising early, producing the milk, delivering it to us, the effort and care day in and day out, and they have been doing this for a long time, which is very inspiring. To think about doing that for decades to come is incredibly overwhelming—inspiring still. And within that, a consistently high standard that you put out to your customers. I think about the eggs we buy, the chickens laying these eggs, and the team caring for the chickens—it is an endless cycle of energy and good intentions that people put into making this food. And for this, I have a lot of respect.