ACROSS THE SOUTH, SOUTHERN BREAD IS A RISING ART
Growing up, every so often, and likely out of desperation, my mother would arrive home from work with a grocery bag full of assorted, thinly sliced deli meats, a selection of cheeses, and pretty basic mustards that, for unknown reasons, compelled us children to dramatize requests for the sauce as though we’d never seen condiments before in our lives.
Then there was the bread. Oh, that abominable bread…
Tossed immediately onto the counter so we could get to the good stuff inside the bag, the bread was always the same in my house: supermarket-bought, white, highly processed, sliced sandwich bread.
When it came to sandwiches, the bread was as much an afterthought as the plate we would later put it on.
Serving up sandwich bread regularly is just part of my ongoing list of evidence that my mother was trying to kill me with terrible food as a child, but the simple fact is this: most of us have never actually had real bread. Most of us have never had bread as it was intended. Bread as it ought to be made.
The dissolution of bread—one of the simplest of foods that dates back further than recorded history—started long before any of us were born, with the advent of commercial yeast and white flour in the nineteenth century.By the time Prohibition ended in this country, Wonder Bread was on the shelves and engrained in our culture.
For generations of Americans, bread has been insignificant. It’s been our conduit for meat, cheese, and mustard; it’s slightly burned toast; if we’re lucky, it pops and oozes out of a bright blue can and arrives at the table as our entrée to freshly baked anything.
And that’s when bread isn’t being demonized as a fat-filled, carbohydrate-laden, doughy embodiment of gluten that ought to be exiled off the plate entirely.
What most of us know and understand about bread through commercial bread is entirely different from how bread should actually taste and be produced.
“Everything (commercial) bread has gone through—from the bread to the bag it’s in—is an industrialized process,” Evrim Dogu, head baker and co-owner of Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, Virginia, says. “The wheat, the yeast, the things added to make it shelf-sustainable—really on every level it’s different from how bread should be.”
Dogu, who opened his bakery in 2012, is part of a handful of artisanal bakers across the South embracing a back-to-basics approach to bread baking that’s merging modern food philosophy with ancient techniques to create a whole new loaf.
“People are afraid of bread because it takes time,” says Lionel Vatinet, owner of La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina.
Vatinet came to America just over twenty years ago after earning the title “Master Baker” in France; he’s been on the forefront of the artisanal baking movement in this country and in the South. He spent years traveling the world, teaching bread making before opening La Farm in the outskirts of Raleigh in 1999.
“I came to teach people,” Vatinet said. “We knew Wonder Bread and we knew it wasn’t very good. There was already a movement and I thought—we can teach a lot of people to make good bread.”
The recipe for good bread is relatively simple. As Vatinet says, “Bread is water, flour, salt, and yeast,” but for artisanal bakers, it’s so much more. For artisanal bakers, the recipe for the perfect loaf is stone-ground, locally sourced grain; natural starters; hearth baking; and hours of painstaking work.
Artisanal baking is a labor of love for these bakers. Early mornings and long days just come with the territory.
Depending on how you look at it, Dogu’s day starts or ends in his Richmond shop a little after five p.m., after lighting the fire in his custom-built brick oven. He’ll be back at work before four a.m. to start baking, allowing five hours for the fire to burn out and the oven to reach its ideal baking temperature, which it will retain for a full day of baking.
Dogu mills his own grain, including native Virginia corn and “Italian rye that came to the Carolinas in the 1700s,” and builds his fire from wood he hand-splits behind his bakery each day. “It keeps me connected to the process,” he says.
There’s nothing about fire-fueled ovens that affects the flavor or consistency of bread; in fact, cooking with fire makes the process more difficult.
“Wood makes inconsistencies, and that’s where the craft comes in—because you can achieve something,” Dogu says. “It’s a moving target.”
Dogu modeled his oven and process on that of David Bauer, owner and head baker of Farm and Sparrow Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina.
“Fire definitely fits in with a tactile approach to baking,” Bauer says. “Milling and fire—you’re setting yourself up to have variability in every step of the process. It’s going to be interesting.”
Bauer opened his bakery in 2006 and spent years working with Asheville-area organic and heirloom farmers to grow a variety of heritage grains, including Turkey Red Wheat and Wren’s Abruzzi Rye.
“Not everyone has to use heirloom grains,” Bauer said. “But it wasn’t enough for me to just bake bread that was voluptuous. I wanted it to reflect the place.”
Working with these grains took patience and a lot of trial and error. Bauer discovered early on that Southern grains are weaker and hold less water than California-grown grains, making hand-mixing essential to the process.
“We try to bake with Old World values but be open to what’s new,” Bauer says. “I don’t want to recreate some quaint bread that didn’t exist when even my parents were alive.”
In Cary, Vatinet uses the French method, baking in a steam-injected, French-made, hearth oven and working with Carolina Ground Mills, Carolina-grown, stone-milled grains, but there’s one commonality for all artisanal bakers: a natural starter.
“I’m big proponent of a natural starter,” Vatinet says. “The starter can change the flavor.”
After nearly 150 years in existence, commercial yeast might seem like the old-school method for a home baker, but for the true artisanal baker, a natural starter is essential.
For Matt McIntosh of EVO Bakery in Charleston, South Carolina, which opened in 2012, the process to make his natural starter begins at four a.m. Depending on the bread a single loaf takes a minimum of twenty-four to thirty-six hours from starter to completion.
Flour and water are the only ingredients needed for a natural starter, but fermentation is a minimum eight-to-ten-hour process while yeasts in the air merge with the ingredients to create the leaven.
“You have wild yeasts that are in the air, so West Coast versus East Coast—it’s going to affect the flavor,” McIntosh says. “Each strain has a different flavor.”
The flavor difference from natural yeasts is subtle, but the essence (air-oir?), if you will, of the air is different depending on region (incidentally, this is what gives San Francisco Bay-area sourdough bread its distinctive flavor), so, essentially, bread made in the South will have its own unique flavor.
So why do it? Why do these bakers bother with milling their own grain, enduring fourteen-hour days that start at four a.m., and making their own starters just to create fat, crusty loaves of bread as our ancestors knew them?
“There are a few crazy people like us who want to do it because we love it,” Vatinet says. “You can live on bread. You can survive on bread. It brings your community and family together.”
“It’s craftsmanship,” McIntosh says. “You can taste the difference. That’s the bottom line.”