Pass It On – Baker James Barrett

James Barrett standing proudly in front of his bakery/cafe on 19th Street at Rittenhouse Square. Apple Cider Loaves.

James Barrett standing proudly in front of his bakery/cafe on 19th Street at Rittenhouse Square. Apple Cider Loaves.

If you were to believe most of the bread books out on the shelves these days, you might think that the tide was turning toward a browner, more whole grain future. Heritage wheat and sprouted grains seem prolific. But, If you talk to Metropolitan Bakery owner/baker James Barrett, you’d only be half right. “Baguettes have been our biggest seller ever since we opened. That’s every day for the last 20 years. It’s the bread that people always gravitate towards more than anything. And that’s through all the diet fads, too: South Beach, Atkins, Gluten-free. It doesn’t matter, people always want their baguette.” The second best seller?  The Multi-grain Sandwich Loaf.

There’s practically no one better to ask about the state of bread in Philadelphia than James. He started baking bread in the kitchen of, what was arguably the Philadelphia equivalent of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the White Dog Café. White Dog was known for using the best of what was grown and produced locally. James found that his interest in traditional European bread-making was encouraged there. He began learning the bread-craft through experimentation and inspiration. “At White Dog, I could do whatever I wanted to do. I could spare no expense and I could make the baking as complicated as I wanted. I tried everything I could, all different methods and fermentation times, retarding dough in the walk-in overnight in various ways… I was having a great time.”

Baguettes!!!

Multi-Grain Baguettes!!!

Other artisanal bakeries had entered the wholesale baking world in Philadelphia and been successful. Le Bus had started selling wholesale  bread in the 70’s, in 1992, Bread Smith Bakery (later, Baker Street Bread Co.) was founded in Chestnut Hill, and James saw room in the market for his unique take on artisanal bread. In 1993, he opened Metropolitan Bakery with his partner, Wendy Smith Born. They wanted to bring the bread of White Dog Café to the rest of Philadelphia. James says the transition from restaurant to bakery gave him a bit of a wake-up call.

Metropolitan Bakery's signature sourdough loaf.

Metropolitan Bakery’s signature sourdough loaf.

Baking in a restaurant is a lot different than baking in a production bakery. It can be very insular. You do everything yourself and can keep an eye on everything. If you have the budget, you can use high-priced or exotic ingredients. And many times the people eating your bread don’t mind paying extra for something a bit more upscale. “When I started Metropolitan Bakery in 1993, I was continuing on baking like I had done at White Dog, but as I was expanding my business I found that skilled bakers were extremely scarce. As I started to scale up, I realized that it was impossible to do a baguette with a super-wet dough because I was the only one who could shape it.” Not just that, but he was finding that customers would only pay a certain price for bread and rolls. And let’s face it, though, there was more demand than ever, he was dealing with a mostly un-educated clientele. Many times he would get complaints that the crusts were “too crusty” or the bread had too many holes in it, “unusable” was a frequently used adjective.

“Part of me wanted to say, ‘That’s naturally leavened bread, that’s just the way it is!’, but I couldn’t. I had to walk a tightrope, compromise. I had to find the balance between baking the bread I wanted to eat and making something acceptable for wholesale. I had to make money and at that time I had just hired two employees, Plus, I had a business partner. So a lot was counting on the business succeeding.”

Michael, Chris, Andrew and Pat putting in work on  the bench. Chocolate Rye Tarts.

Michael, Chris, Andrew and Pat putting in work on the bench. Chocolate Rye Tarts.

James learned to make the right compromises over time. “I had to keep the product my number one concern. Without quality and focus behind your vision, you have nothing.” He maintains that he is still “baguette obsessed”after all these years. To that end, Metropolitan Bakery shapes all their baguettes by hand. No machines, no non-sense, and we’re talking hundreds of baguettes, here. But, it means a lot to James that his ideals stay intact.

It’s what made his bakery an institution in Philly and also what draws young people to begin their baking careers there. La Columbe Head Baker, John McGrath, worked with James, as did former Russet and Joli Bakery (Bethlehem)Head Baker, Katie Lynch, among others. The head of production at Metropolitan Bakery now is baker Dane Frazier. James says, “Dane is great and he’s a wonderful baker. He’s a great example of a serious, passionate baker and I rely on him to run daily operations and keep things consistent.” You can tell that James really enjoys the fact that so many talented artisans come through his doors and stay a while. He’s very excited about the new wave of interest in artisan breads.

James was recently introduced to baker Josey Baker on a trip to San Francisco and was impressed by his intensity. “He’s a far out and energetic guy, but most of the better young bakers are. They all want to make their statement with the bread they make. I think it’s great. The new generation of bakers is young energy, new energy. It’s wonderful and I applaud anyone who wants to get into this business and carry on the tradition. After all, we are all just vessels taking in information and carrying it on to the next generation. That’s all we are.”

Dough Dame: Baker Donna Wallstin

In today’s culinary world, the use of the term ‘artisan’ can be divisive and elicit an eye roll. Once a term to denote a skilled craftsperson, the word is now applied frivolously; this mishap can place unique, handmade products among a sea of artificial factory-doctored goods. Borrowing from Craig Ponsford, Master Baker and Chairman of the BBGA, a true artisan baker is “a craftsperson who is trained to the highest ability to mix, ferment, shape and bake a hand crafted loaf of bread. They understand the science behind the chemical reactions of the ingredients and know how to provide the best environment for the bread to develop”.

Self-proclaimed “dough dame”/ “bread geek” Donna Wallstin is one such baker who truly understands every single aspect of her process. She currently makes sourdough breads and scones every week using a mobile, wood-fired oven, designed by the late, internationally renowned blacksmith and oven builder Alan Scott. Her entire set up is within ear shot of the farmer’s market where the products are sold. This weekly event occurs on Saturday mornings in the paved center of the Burlington County Community Agricultural Center, bounded on all sides by a farmhouse, a cottage, silos, and a community garden plot. The sale of breads acts as a revenue stream for the non-profit Our Shared Ground. She rotates her flavors, weekly. The past month included Light Rye, Semolina Sesame, Kalamata Olive, Classic Whole Grain, and Seeded (Sunflower/Flax). She sources ingredients as locally as she can, and she is grateful to her connection to the Fischers of Castle Valley, her main source for flour. Patrons drive from hours away for her products. She has about twenty clients who order consistently every week. With 230 people on her mailing list, she manages to sell out every week.

Though the notion of baking bread practically outdoors in a rural setting sounds romantic to most, the reality of it is that it can be a real struggle. She works with a lot of parameters, alone, in a small space, and with weather conditions. She related to me that there were days this past winter when she literally could not get the bread to the oven, because there is no overhead cover protecting her from the elements. Her doughs have to withstand the elements, as the oven is essentially outside. Conversely, in last summer’s heat, she was forced to salt her sourdough starter, halting the fermentation process and preventing an overripe starter. She is a master troubleshooter. Her participation in bread forums has allowed her to stay connected to other bakers while gaining insight. She asserts: “If it was easy, I wouldn’t be doing it”. Donna constantly tests her boundaries, is always striving to learn and reform and experiment, this labor is what makes her a true artisan.

Climate factors aside, Wallstin works in a fully outfitted yet semi-rugged environment, as if camping with fancy, high end gear. The bulk of her process happens inside the famous “C-box”, meaning her container ship. This is where equipment lives: double diving arm mixer, collection of immaculate bannettons, two speed racks, a handful of tubs, a variety of flours in home baker amounts. Her space is meticulously organized and clean. The entire container unit acts as a refrigeration unit, and has the ability to cool all the way to 30 degrees, to act as a bread retarder, if necessary. Typically she keeps it at 60, which is optimal for her techniques and needs. She grapples with the nuances of her product, she yearns to find out if the differences are subtle enough. Running a one-woman show out on the NJ boonies, I got the feeling she craved baker kinship. The feeling was mutual; I admit I was overwhelmed in a positive way by her zeal for the craft of bread baking.

In the grand scheme of her career in food, it took a decade before ‘finding her place in bread’. After graduating from New England Culinary Institute, she fled to the West Coast, spending her first years at Domain Chandon in Yountville, CA. She worked in all of the back of the house stations: prep, line, savory and pastry. From there, she made her way up the coast, working in Portland and landing in Seattle for many years, working in bakeries as well on a yacht as a private chef. She maintains that her first experience was her favorite and best, in that it taught her how to take a holistic approach to product and service. She has applied lessons from there to all her endeavors thus far, and carries them close to heart still, as she has created and sustains a bread program completely alone. “I know every aspect of what I’m doing, and if for some reason I don’t know something, I am surprised”.

Like many artisan bakers, she is influenced heavily by Chad Robertson, whom she maintains has written one of the “bread bibles”. Her personal advice to me as a somewhat green baker was: “Buy ‘Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens’ by Alan Scott, read that three times, followed immediately by Chad Robertson’s ‘Tartine Bread’ and read that three times”. Her comprehensiveness of craft means that her equipment is as integral to her process as her dough-making. She contends that the piece de resistance of her set-up is the oven. Designed by the aforementioned Alan Scott, and built by William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat in Vermont, the oven has “internal combustion, retained heat oven made of fire brick and refractory mortar: wood is burned inside the vaulted chamber, later the ashes are removed, and the bread is put inside the chamber to bake.” Baking in this oven is one of her most profound joys. She chops all of her own wood, and shared the desire to grow her own from willow, a new experimental trend she told me is happening in Europe. This kind of thinking seems to be typical Donna. Once she knows what she needs to do, she attacks from all angles to get the job done.

The day I visited, she offered me slices of a barley sourdough, which she had added porridge to during her folding process. With a thinly developed crust that offered a praiseworthy chew, the bread contained deep, airy pockets, a marker of a successful sourdough. Watch out Philadelphia, she is not too far away and inching closer.

Donna bought this double diving arm mixer for a bargain of $5,000

Wallstin bought this double diving arm mixer for a bargain of $5,000

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The opening of Donna’s mobile, wood-fired oven

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A full speed rack, the work bench, and some bread loot from the morning’s bake

 

The Burlington County Community Agricultural Center on a fine summer day

Donna in the distance, standing between her oven and her shipping container workspace.

 

 

Bread Is the Anchor- Baker Claire Kopp Mcwilliams

The baker, herself, holding a slice of Corn and Rye Bread. Opposite, Smoked Wheatberry Petite Pain.

The baker, herself, holding a slice of Corn and Rye Bread. Opposite, Smoked Wheatberry Petite Pain.

By now, bread making is well over 12,000 years old. And for all that time the  process has gone down in pretty much the same way it always has. That method has been passed down from baker to baker through all those years, differing a little from region to region as it traveled. Over time and through industrial revolutions, bread making has become more refined and complex (the marvel of the modern baguette, quick brioche), though, sometimes more convoluted (chocolate bacon sourdough, Hotpockets?). Then, what does it mean to be true to bread’s roots? 

For baker Claire Kopp McWilliams, who runs the bread program at Chef Justin Bogle’s Avance, it means doing as little as possible to deter from the bread’s natural qualities. What more is bread than its principal four ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast? Why not celebrate it’s simplicity? Claire does just that with breads like her Smoked Wheat berry Sourdough. Her embellishment of gently smoked wheat berries to her whole wheat sourdough is truly inspired. The bread presents another take on wheat that we don’t generally see in a context we love. Her Rye & Corn loaf is fully flavored and straight forward. You taste the essence of each grain clearly represented in the bread, the presence of each making a substantial appearance in the crumb and giving the bread a wonderful tooth to it.

A few baker's tools, a whole Corn and Rye Loaf, and Anson Mills' Abruzzi Rye Berries.

A few baker’s tools, a whole Corn and Rye Loaf, and Anson Mills’ Abruzzi Rye Berries.

The crumb of a Corn and Rye Loaf.

The crumb of a Corn and Rye Loaf.

“I’m really a fundamentalist. I like simplicity and Chef Justin appreciates that. He’s never micromanaging. He allows each bread to be what it is.”

With her Fermented Raisin Red Fife Wheat bread, she plays with alternate themes of fermentation to bring forth different flavors from heritage wheat. The method there is complex, but again she has very few ingredients (the addition of only fermented raisins) producing a wide swath of intense flavor. The flavors that Claire creates are clear and direct. Her ability is to manipulate the ingredients into something simultaneously innovative and grounded. You could say that her bread serves as an anchor for a restaurant that is known for presenting, what some may consider, challenging food.

“I like the idea that my bread can make people feel comfortable… I know that when I first started eating in finer restaurants, I was nervous and felt awkward, I kinda didn’t know what to do. But I feel that if you’re like me and someone hands you bread or a roll with butter, you know what to do. I like to set it up that some of the breads are meant to be torn apart to eat them. There’s a bread that we serve on the plate as a wedge. It’s not a slice, it’s not a roll, so you kind of have to get in to it. I like having people drawn into their meal and let their guard down a bit.”

Certainly, the kind of exciting, modern cuisine being prepared at restaurants like Avance is ushering in a reinvigorated interest in baking and traditional bread-making. In Philadelphia, Claire Kopp McWilliams is definitely at the forefront of the new crop of young bakers in these restaurants who are crafting interesting and delightful new variations on old classics and finding new combinations of ingredients to elevate bread to higher levels.

Slices of Fermented Raisin - Red Fife Whole Wheat loaves.

Slices of Fermented Raisin – Red Fife Whole Wheat loaves.

“It’s a great time to be a baker in Philly, there are so many opportunities for [bakers] right now. I think it’s great that we’re not a city like New York or San Francisco or Seattle where there is this really established bakery scene. There’s lots of room for several new bakeries to come in and change things. It’s really exciting.”

As there becomes more room to grow, bakers like Claire have more room to spread their wings and stretch their minds. If the public lets them, they will nourish, satisfy and delight them with their new take on bread-making and carry the tradition well into the future.

Castle Valley Mill: A Tour and Chat


Castle Valley Mill Barn

Castle Valley Mill Barn

Perched atop the Neshaminy Creek in lower Doylestown, PA, sits a nearly three hundred year old flour mill. A multi-level stone barn, as idyllic as any Thomas Eakins painting, holds within its walls the trappings of a fully outfitted 18th century flour mill. The machines and tools, as well as the systems, including grain elevators, almost-working water wheel and grain elevators, harken back to a time when it was common for a family or a group of families to operate a flour mill in order to barter with other nearby makers. The dearth of these antiques seriously rivals the collection of the nearby Mercer Museum, famous for its collections of artisanal tools. Unlike the Mercer, however, the majority of the tools and machinery operate quite effectively, and allow the users to turn a profit.

The mill and the surrounding property in question is Castle Valley Mill. In its most recent iteration, Castle Valley has become the go-to source for some of Philadelphia’s finest bakers and chefs in their collective quest to offer local, authentically stone ground and whole grain products. Mark and Fran Fischer, the dynamic duo who co-own and operate the mill, with scant help from their teenage children, are taking their operation to the next level. I caught up with them on an overcast, drizzly Spring afternoon, the type of weather that allows them to take a step back from production and focus on reorganization.

 

A view of Neshaminy Creek

A view of Neshaminy Creek

Water Wheel

Water Wheel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upon entering the barn, dozens of mills, complete with varying sizes of millstones, were scattered in a thoughtful if not dizzying array on the first and second floors. The Fischers of today pay homage to the Fischers of the past; most of the production takes place on mills that Mark’s grandfather collected many decades ago, after he purchased the property in 1947. Technically, Mark is about as savvy as they come. His background in electrical engineering as well as his can-do and somewhat auto-didactic nature has made his leap from the corporate sphere to the manual labor lifestyle a seemingly painless one. His adoration of clever, old machinery, (perhaps a genetic predisposition) makes him a natural fixer-upper. In the beginning, the mill subsisted with two Alsatian buhr mills but the need for more grew with more accounts. For now, their product line includes: soft whole wheat flour, hard whole wheat flour, grits, cornmeal, rye flour, rye berries, emmer flour, emmer berries, spelt flour, spelt berries. Presently, the mill is outfitted to create 7,000 pounds a day of product.

Flour Display

His exemplary tour was well-rehearsed and thorough, and I was taken aback at the sheer volume of knowledge Mark has accrued in the process of bringing Castle Valley back to life. Quickly glossing over the difference between a one pass and a gradual mill, I was embarrassed by my ignorance of the processes that allow my profession to exist. I lamented that I lacked proper education in this regard. How could a baker, or chef, truly value the end product when they lacked a coherent understanding of the overall ingredients? The mill to oven to table movement seems imminent. Needless to say, my crash course in eighteenth century milling is not nearly complete.

True vintage equipment

True vintage equipment

Antique machinery, salvaged by Fischer's grandfather

Antique machinery, salvaged by Fischer’s grandfather

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luckily, it didn’t take long for the Fischers to realize they were offering niche products at a time when the culinary communities of Philadelphia and surrounding counties were bitten by the local bug. They take pride in the mutually advantageous influence on their supplying farms; their corn is now growing completely non-GMO at their behest, and the crop was among the most successful in the area. Like many small artisanal businesses, the end product can vary season by season, crop by crop, and for the Fischers, that’s part of the charm. Regarding his price points, he admits that it’s “somewhat of a crapshoot”, though he consults with other millers and operations of similar quality and scale. It is a business after all, and he believes his pricing is fair when one considers labor, quality, and most importantly, the ethics of supporting local business. The furthest any of his grains travel is from Harrisburg, and they aim to keep it that way.

As of this writing, the Fischers have only been able to taste the breads and products of their partial labor at a handful of establishments. But what they have been able to sample, they can attest, “we are smitten”. “It’s a love fest” when they taste the delightfully inventive ways in which other artisans are utilizing their product line. Favorites among them include Philly Bread’s “Philly Muffins”, and High Street on Market’s Anadama loaf. Upon hearing where we bake, they simultaneously lifted their eyebrows in awe.

Just in their third year as a commercial business, they are dedicated to sharing their wares, donating monthly to local charity Philabundance, as well as to the education-based non-profit Our Shared Ground.  Though Mark Fischer envisions a community where his offerings are in as many lunch boxes as on triple-dollar sign platters, he can still admit: “I’ve become a bit of a bread snob”. That’s what we like to hear.