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.