Romica Stingaciu stands for a few moments in the doorway of his bakery in Coolmine Industrial Estate and breathes in the cold damp air before stepping back inside, into a muggy atmosphere of rising dough and preheated ovens.
It’s 7.30am on Friday, and the Bucovina bakery is small and bright, with wooden floors and a red-brick oven that takes up half the room and radiates a slow-burning heat.
Two bakers, Maria Muj and Nelu Botesan, flour down the surfaces and mix yeast with warm water to a backing track of Romanian pop music.
“We don’t supply, it’s just for us. But if somebody asks, why not?” says Stingaciu, shrugging leather-jacketed shoulders.
Behind him, Muj heaves a 25kg sack of flour onto the counter top, cracks a couple of eggs and splashes vanilla essence into a waiting pot.
Nestled between Powercity and a tyre shop, Bucovina bakery sells goods from Romania and other Eastern European countries, and is chockablock from a delivery from the day before.
But the home-made bread is the big draw.
Stingaciu takes a sliced loaf of yeast bread from a basket. “We don’t add anything else than flour, water, yeast and salt. The quantities are the most important … but more important is the oven. Without this, there can’t be good bread,” he says.
Muj and Botesan slap down large handfuls of yeasty dough – scooped from the industrial-sized mixer on the floor – onto a kneading board.
Muj slices off small lumps, flattens them into rounds and fills them with sweet cottage cheese. She pulls corners of dough over the centre, like second nature. She’s been in this business for 40 years, since she was 16.
Botesan shapes jam-filled crescents and rolls and loaves of bread-to-be, which Muj scores with a small blade, and leaves to prove under muslin cloth. There’s still some time until the oven hits 210 degrees: optimum bread-baking temperature.
The first batch goes in, and within ten minutes, the small bakery smells of warm, fresh bread and sweet, enriched dough.
Muj gets to work on the rest, braiding about eight strands of dough together, intricately, to form a wreath: a “kolak”, which is usually ordered by Romanian customers for special occasions, like weddings, says Stingaciu.
Botesan releases the steam valve. It floods the oven with moisture for a shiny crust, as steam billows out the top. By now, the room is almost unbearably warm.
“Without this, there’s no good bread,” says Stingaciu.
When it’s time to take the loaves out, Botesan hoists them out with a large wooden paddle, sliding them into a basket where the crusts whisper and crackle over each other.
Stingaciu has been in Ireland for 21 years. Bucovina, in its current incarnation, has been around for about nine, he says, as he hauls up the shutters on the shop’s fridges, exposing quinces, grapes and gnarled fingers of horseradish.
When he first came to Dublin, Stingaciu used to shop in the stores attached to nearby mosques. Back then, those were the only places he could find things like polenta for mămăligă, he says, as he picks up a pack from the shelf.
“A year and a half ago we did this,” he says, waving an arm towards the bakery. “I went to a friend of mine in the countryside. I passed by a bakery, and there was this smell.”
He asked his friend what it was. “He took me inside, and I talked with the owner and he showed me,” says Stingaciu. But there are not many bakeries like this left in Romania, he says. This is an old-fashioned way to make bread.
“People are in love with that,” he says. That memory and that smell is something he seeks to recreate for customers.
“We try to bring in things that you can’t find here,” says Stingaciu’s wife, Virginia, who arrives later to help open the shop. “Just to be different, because there are a lot of shops selling food around here, including Romanian,” she says.
“This all looks like when our grannies used to bake for us,” she says, pointing to the shelves, now heavy with bread, pastry and biscuits.
“They were hard times,” she says. You would never buy bread, you would only make it.
In the future, Stingaciu plans to make sourdough and gluten-free breads. But it’s taking a while, because they have to be just right.
Every year, Bucovina holds a small harvest festival outside the shop, offering food made by small producers in Romania. This year, it’s planned for the end of October.
It’s a chance for the Bucovina team to show off what they sell on from small suppliers – they try to stick to small local suppliers when they can – like the miniature pickled watermelon that Stingaciu gets in barrels from a woman in the Romanian countryside.
“It’s a small place. We want to remind people of how things used to be,” he says.