Bread is not a commodity

Reading Time: 11 min


Willem van Aalst worked in finance.

“I met a commodity trader with EF Hutton. I thought his lifestyle was interesting and exciting, so I decided that’s what I want to do.”

His career began with an internship in Chicago, which led to work as a correspondent at the European Options Exchange in his hometown of Amsterdam.

“I spoke French fluently, so I was responsible for selling seats on the exchange to French speaking countries.”

Although he enjoyed his job, Willem missed the USA and wanted to return. Eventually, an opportunity emerged through a training program with Bankers Trust.

“It was a lot of fun, I spent time in New York where I met my wife Kathryn in 1980. We were engaged in 1981, and we got married in 1982 in New Orleans, which is where she grew up.”

After the training program, Willem was offered a job with a posting in either Jakarta or Amsterdam. Again he chose to return to his hometown, this time to be close to his father who was sick with lung cancer. After his father passed, Willem left his role with Bankers Trust, enrolled in a MBA, and eventually took a job in London where he moved with his growing family.

Philip, Willem and Sasha van Aalst stand in front of Bakkerij Mater in Amsterdam.
Philip, Willem and Sasha van Aalst.

“Kathryn was pregnant with Sasha, my daughter” — she also gave birth to two sons, Nicholas and Philip — “and we lived in London for the next 12 years. I worked for Smith Barney first as a bond trader and salesman, and then with Salomon Brothers, where I was a bond salesman to Dutch and Scandinavian insurance companies, pension funds and the like.”

Willem was then offered a job with Lehman Brothers.

“It was when the structured finance business took off and I got heavily involved in that, which was extremely profitable.”

In layman’s terms, structured finance refers to the sector of the financial industry that is concerned with leverage and risk. 

“Basically, if you are a fixed income investor, a bond investor, and you’re only allowed to buy bonds, but you also want equity exposure, then a bank can create a bond and its redemption or its coupon is linked to an equity market. So essentially it’s an equity, but you’re allowed to buy it as a bond investor, because it’s structured as a bond.”

Does this make sense to you? It didn’t make sense to Willem.

“It is totally bogus and that’s what the financial industry is all about. The financial industry is essentially a big bunch of lies” and structured finance, and specifically the mortgage backed securities market, is what led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

“What got us into the financial mess of 2008 is greed, basic greed. I mean, the financial industry is a very, very greedy environment. People were paid ridiculous amounts of money, including myself, and when that happens things go awry. I was working for Lehman Brothers in 1999, which led to a personal burnout caused by being responsible for a large sales force, about 45 people, which was extremely stressful.“

Willem quit and he returned to Amsterdam with his family. After a few years of running a radio venture with a friend, he was pulled back into the finance industry.

“I started working for a very small investment bank here in Holland, simply because I wanted to go back to something I knew. I was talking to my old clients, old institutional investors, and they were talking a lot about hedge funds and that they wanted to invest in them. So I said to this small company, ‘we ought to start a hedge fund because it’s what our investors want.’” 

After a few years working for that company, Willem received a phone call from an old friend. 

“We used to work together at Lehman Brothers, he was a trader and he asked, ‘can you help me set up a hedge fund, because I’m sick and tired of working for Lehman Brothers, I think the world is going to hell in a basket, we’re going to have a huge credit crisis, and I don’t want to be in dollars, I want to be in emerging markets, I want to protect my own wealth and that of others, so I need a fund.’” 

They started a hedge fund in London in 2003. 

“It was a very successful, very large fund, and I was splitting my week between London and Amsterdam. Then in September 2007, when the first cracks of the credit crisis started to appear, when the Bear Stearns hedge funds went belly up, we lost quite a bit of money, around 6.5%, which is not enormous in hedge fund land, but it was twice what we had lost before in any given month.” 

He and his business partner discussed the position of the fund and felt to make different choices, which ultimately led to them parting ways.

“People took advantage of a system based on trust. Trust was put in the rating agencies believing they were doing their job correctly, rating all of these instruments according to the true quality of the underlying assets in those structured transactions, but they weren’t. And people were buying three, four or five apartments financed by mortgages, which they never should have gotten, but the salesmen who sold those mortgages were making so much money on commissions they would have sold them to their dying grandmother. It was a market on steroids. It was fraud.

“In splitting from my business partner, I realised how ruthless the financial market is and how little it actually adds to anybody’s wellbeing, other than making a lot of money for people that are thus motivated. The finance industry, for me, was not an end, it was a means to an end, it afforded me to live a certain lifestyle, to do certain things. I was running after money for money’s sake and I think that’s basically how the financial industry works. If you are not motivated that way, I don’t believe you can actually function in that environment, because it’s eat or get eaten, it’s not pretty, it’s not good. So I became very, very disenchanted. I mean, what do we need a bank for? We need a bank to lend us money when we need it, or transfer money to different accounts, that’s it. We don’t need banks to speculate, we don’t need banks to make huge amounts of money of their own accord.”

In 2008, Willem left the finance industry. 

“It was the second time I quit, but this time I decided it was going to be for good, which meant I had to find something else to do. I had made a fair bit of money in the hedge fund business, so I could afford to take time to think about what I wanted to focus on. I thought if I do something that I’m passionate about, that I really care about, it would probably be alright.”

Willem van Aalst baking in Bakkerij Mater.
Willem working in Bakkerij Mater.

Willem had fished and hunted his whole life and had always enjoyed the time he shared with Mother Nature.

“I felt an enormous amount of support and trust from the environment.” 

Willem was looking online and he came across Geoff Lawton’s permaculture program. 

“I liked him as a teacher and as a storyteller, I liked his project, I like where he came from, with Bill Mollison, one of the original thinkers of perennial and permanent structures. I did two courses with him that taught me to look at land in a totally different way, to look at mountains in a totally different way, to look at valleys in a totally different way, to look at the keyline aspect of how water flows down these valleys, and how incredibly potent water is, not just potent in the sense of giving life, but also destructive if it’s obstructed by human intervention in the wrong way. Water will destroy anything that’s in its way.”

He then came across Mark Shepard, the author of Restoration Agriculture, again through the internet. 

“That was an eye opener for me. I put the system he described in his book into a spreadsheet, and I did some calculations and I asked myself, why is there anybody in the world not farming like this? Why are they all doing something different in terms of monoculture and stuff like that? It does not make sense when you look at those numbers, which is an incredibly profitable, multi-crop, multifaceted system compared to an acre of corn. The acre he describes in his book, with chestnuts and apples and berries and chickens and pigs and cows, you name it, that acre you can live off. But this other acre you can’t live off, you just have corn, you will die. And the acre of corn has all of these inputs like fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and all the crap that you don’t need and you certainly don’t want to eat. And it is far more expensive than the acre that takes advantage of the symbiosis of interconnected nature.”

Willem travelled to San Diego in the USA to study with Mark, and on his return, he stopped by his wife’s hometown of New Orleans.

“We flew over the Mississippi Delta and I saw the lushness and the beauty of the Delta, which I’d spent an enormous amount of time in, hunting and fishing. And right on those edges where salt water meets sweet water, where forest, marsh and mangroves meet the land, in those edges of nature life is palpable, it jumps at you, it is teeming with life. And so flying in, looking over that, I thought, that’s beautiful, that’s where I want it to be.”

His wife Kathryn’s family are one of the owners of a large property on the Atchafalaya River. 

“It’s a very interesting property. You have a polder, a diked piece of land, and then you have pure marsh, it’s about 7000 acres in total. It’s a huge property, and they found oil underneath it in the 1930s, they put all sorts of pipelines under it and exploited the hell out of it. About seven families owned it, including Kathryn’s family, but the oil is now dry or at a depth that’s not feasible to actually exploit. And from the original shareholders, it now has 107 shareholders, and it’s not bringing in any money, or at least not the kind of money that they were used to through oil. So I looked at it and thought if I build a regenerative farm there, a very diverse regenerative farm, it’s going to be incredibly profitable.

“I researched it for five years. I got Mark Shepard to come over to have a look and discuss what we could develop, and we came up with a beautiful system of mounds and meadows with water in between. It was not only an incredibly beautiful system, but it was also going to be — I did calculations — it would have made millions once that system got running, because it was mostly perennial structures and animal structures that were self-sustaining. It would have been stupendous, but the shareholders didn’t want it.“

During this period, Willem continued studying, shifting focus from the restorative agriculture of Mark Shepard to regenerative agriculture with Allan Savory. It was through his friendship with Allan that he met Will Harris.

“Will was a fourth generation farmer who decided to do things differently. He says he has got 100,000 beating hearts on his property, which means he’s got beef, pigs, turkeys, chickens, geese, vegetables, you name it. In the ten years that I’ve known him, I have seen him take over neighbouring industrial farms and regenerate them and generate revenue off them. He has 154 people working for him, he inspired change in the town of Bluffton, where his farm is.  I saw the accounts and I talked to him about it and it works, it feeds people, it builds a community, it builds territory, it builds land.“

It was Will’s example of regenerating land, as well as communities, that inspired Willem’s next venture.

“I had been baking sourdough bread for 12 years. It started when I was studying permaculture and realising there is no difference between my biome and the biome out there in the fields, where healthy food grows. If it’s healthy, it feeds me and I am healthy, if it’s not healthy, I get sick. If you don’t care about the food you eat, you’ll get sick. If you don’t know where your food is coming from, you will get sick. I mean, there’s no two ways about it because the microbial fungi in the soil is no different from the microbial fungi of our intestines. And so realising that I realised that yeast is a bad thing, I realised that fermenting is a good process, I realised that fermented bread is a good thing, so I started baking for my family and my friends.”

Willem had returned from his American Dream and it was during the Covid lockdowns when his son Nicholas saw an ad on Facebook. 

“It basically said, is there somebody who wants to bake in my bakery? My son saw it and responded ‘my Dad’, and that’s how it all started.”

Bakkerij Mater on Ceintuurbaan in Amsterdam.
Bakkerij Mater on Ceintuurbaan.

In October 2020, Willem began baking with his other son Philip and his daughter Sasha. A longtime Ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher, Sasha was drawn to the energy that was growing between her father and her brother. She recalls this first period of baking as “a little mad scientist’s experimental kitchen”.

“It was very spontaneous. Through my brother Nicholas, Pap got access to a little space and he remembered the bread, because my father didn’t do it for a while, he was so focused on the swamp in Louisiana. And then my brother Philip got involved and helped evolve his process into something bigger. It was during the lockdowns, and I needed something of the earth to connect to, with other people and with my hands, and it gave me that. We were just opening the garage door, baking for people and selling lots of bread. It was very playful in the beginning, it was just an experiment from October 2020 until April 2021, something like that.”

Willem had set out to understand how to nurture nature, and it seemed that nature was now nurturing him, as this small venture with his family started to expand. They decided to commit to what it was becoming and they found a bigger space, a storefront on Ceintuurbaan in De Pijp, which is now the home to their family bakery, Bakkerij Mater.

“When we moved over here, it became a whole other thing. This was much bigger and I felt like rolling up my sleeves and bringing some feminine energy into this place. And when we arrived here we just realised we could connect it back to everything, to this whole bigger story for him, but to my story too.”

Through teaching yoga, Sasha appreciated people’s need for community and had experience in cultivating it through her shala. So when the bakery started to evolve, and eventually opened to the public, she saw how her own experiences could support what she was creating with her father and her brother. For Willem, it is a continuation of his journey since leaving finance. 

“The baking is a result of the passion for nature. I see the bakery as a platform to continue to work in this transition of agriculture and to continue to work in spreading the word about how concerned we ought to be about how we treat Mother Nature. The bakery enables us to tell the story of what’s important out there, as baking is on the edge of the most destructive agricultural practice in nature, ploughing.

“If you look back in history, basically every civilisation that disappeared, disappeared because of the plough. The plough is a tool for industrial farmers to turn over the land and make it barren so that they can easily sow into it. What it does is it hurts nature, because when they plough, they plough in the early stages of spring, they turn the land upside down, exposing the biology of the land in the sun for it to bake and die. It becomes dust, and so they kill the biology in the soil, and they need to add biology to grow anything in it, so they add fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and all that crap. Also, when they are ploughing at that same depth, continuously, year in and year out, they create a hard bed that water cannot penetrate. When rain drops on that land, it will go through the soil and hit rock, and that rain streams out to wherever it wants to go and pollutes surrounding environments with the herbicides, pesticides and all that they’ve thrown onto that land. 

“How can we produce wholesome, good food on land that does not have biology? How can that biology that feeds the plants, that creates the symbiosis through all those nematodes and all the bacteria and all those things in the soil, which bring in the sugars and the nitrate to the plant to make it grow strong and give it nutritional value, how can that happen in a ploughed field? It can’t. So what you end up having is land that, after a while, is basically no longer feasible for farming and basically the Egyptians, the Romans, you name it, they disappeared because of it.”

Croissants laid out, ready to be cooked in the oven.

Willem has been collaborating with local farmers, sharing his knowledge of nature to ensure the flour and dairy used in their baking nourishes the community and the landscape in and around Amsterdam.

“Bread is the essence. If it’s there, it’s a life supporter, and if it’s not there, well, look at what happens in Gaza or any other troubled land. When they don’t have flour, they have famine.”

Bread has long fuelled healthy societies, and for Willem van Aalst, it has brought together the wisdom from his long journey in a small yet significant way.

“Bread is a commodity that is not just a commodity, it’s the essence of life.”


Anton Rivette is a writer and photographer. He leads storytelling at eco-nnect.

You might also like this story: Planting is Love


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