Published: Jul 14, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jul 14, 2012 02:57 PM
The wonder of bread
Back in the early hippie, whole-wheat days, a saying was born, Wonder Bread, its a wonder they call it bread. For emphasis, I brought a slice of the spongy white stuff home from the hospital after a 1971 surgery and stapled it, still in its sanitary baggie, to the wall. Two years later there was no sign of natural degradation. That would not be the fate of the intensely flavorful, varied and protein-packed breads streaming out of local ovens now. Whether from new micro-bakeries like Box Turtle Bakery in Carrboro or Chicken Bridge Bakery in northwestern Chatham, new storefront bakers like Bread and Butter on Rosemary Street or the long-established Weaver Street Market bakery, the quality and creativity of bread is soaring. Great news for a guy whose favorite breakfast is fresh bread, fruit and coffee. Both Rob Welch owner of Chicken Bridge Bakery and Abraham Palmer of Box Turtle are literally backyard bakers with wood-fired ovens built right into their houses. Both sell at Carrboros Farmers Market. Abrahams bread and other stuff can also be found at the Chapel Hill Farmers market, and Robs at Durhams Wednesday market as well as a CSA he bakes for. Spending a couple of hours with Abraham watching him in constant motion splitting wood, feeding the oven, tending the fire, monitoring its temperature, scooting back in the house to mix dough, measure flour and all the while keeping up a steady stream of bread talk was like running a marathon. Lithe and lean, his intense 15-hour work days are matched by his passion for the ancient art of turning grain and water into nourishing and delicious food. He bakes three times a week in the black oven, a home-built, double tiered brick oven that he fires to over 600 degrees and then removes the wood ash from before putting in the breads. His panoply of product that includes hearth breads, scones, bialys and tortillas crosses cultures and temperature ranges. Proudly he reported that one group of recent Russian immigrants told him his bread was the first to truly remind them of the bread from their home village. His bialys are sought after by cognoscenti and novices alike. English muffins are made as the oven cools and he squeezes out that last bit of useful heat.After a degree from Duke and a twenty-year IT career including a long stint for Starbucks, Abraham has found a way to integrate a very physical job into one that demands a lot of mental energy to keep up with the multiplicity of tasks. Working at home enables him to spend more time with his family. He builds custom equipment like his oak ten inch tortilla hand press and is working with local farmers to identify and grow more wheat strains adapted to our region. Hes a patient, practical man who told me, I got tired of not doing anything positive, so its much better to do something than complain. As far as marketing, his philosophy is that hes found what works for him and people whom that resonates with are now finding his bread. He sells out almost every week, regardless of the product mix and one big retailer has already come knocking, but he doesnt want to specialize.Rob Welch, sole proprietor of the Chicken Bridge Bakery, built a five-and-a-half foot diameter wood-fired oven in his basement. Made from cob, an ancient mixture of clay, sand, straw and water, the oven is about thirteen inches thick. He gained baking experience working with bakers in Puebla and Oaxaca, Mexico and in the States. His hearty, big flavorful, decorated, dark loaves usually sell out well before closing at the Saturday Carrboro Market. Last week. I was lucky to grab a single scone. Like Abraham, Rob works at home. His wife Monica, a pastry chef at Lantern, and son Simon sometimes join the endeavor. He too puts in 15-hour hour days, starting a fire at noon, baking at 6 p.m. when the hearth reaches 500 degrees, then using the lower grade heat for roasting seeds and tomatoes and lately big hunks of meat. He finally quits in the wee hours when oven temperatures and personal energy wane. Like a lot of our baking community, Rob gets most of his flour locally milled, organic and kosher, from nearby Lindley Mills in Graham where owner Joe Lindley is also working to increase regional, organic bread flour growing capability.The most popular and well -known local breads are produced at a much larger scale daily at by the bakers at Weaver Street Markets food house in Hillsborough. Head baker Rob Nichols started this grand operation in 1991. After an itinerant apprenticeship around the country, his original dream of opening a local store front bakery with his brother was overwhelmed by the twin practical considerations of money and time as in no one would lend money for a bakery and it was hard to envision time for both baking and retailing. Coincidentally Ruffin Slater, at Weaver Street Market, said simply to Rob, Why dont you bake for us? So with Weaver Streets capital and Robs desire to make good local bread, the bakery began.Their first oven, a tiny English electric affair, was wedged into the back of the Carrboro store. Gradually capacity grew and when the baking operation moved to Hillsborough in 2007 Rob came out of retirement to run it. He oversees two shifts a day, ensuring the high quality of baguettes, sunflower, multigrain, ciabatta, olive bread, and others that come out daily. As a testament to Robs creativity and skill most of the bread recipes are the original ones he developed there in the early 1990s. My personal testimonial is that Ill sometimes down almost a whole fresh baguette before even getting it home.
Contact Blair Pollock at email@example.com.