Art in Every Loaf
There is a rarified air surrounding someone who has mastered an art or a craft. There is an easy confidence, a depth of conversation, a backtracking to catch you up on the assumed steps which remain concealed to the uninitiated.
I’m not sure which is more intriguing: the wild, visionary look in Andy Brown’s eyes as he explains the process and technique needed to obtain the particular crumb in this loaf, or the structure and aroma of the loaf he is holding. His is a drive born of a passion for excellence and a desire to plumb the medium to its depths. Reducing the recipes to their most basic, removing the extraneous elements we lesser mortals feel are needed if we want to get flavor in our bread. But Andy instead uses time-honored technique. Long, slow fermentation, high hydration (read: a wet, sticky dough) and careful, loving manipulation to coax the flaccid blob into a glorious loaf.
This whole process started 15 years ago when Andy Brown signed on to Bluegrass Baking Company as a delivery driver. Not content with impeccable slicing, packing and maintenance of his area, he wanted to find his heart’s expression in the production of the bread. So he took on the task of being the night baker. And for the last decade or better he has worked, single handedly in the wee hours of the night, coaxing crackling crust, moist crumb and voluptuous flavor out of the simplest of ingredients: flour, water, salt, leavener.
During his tenure the amount of commercial yeast used at the bakery has dropped and the natural leavener used dramatically increased. (In the U.S. a natural leavener is frequently and misleadingly called a sourdough. Some of them are definitely sour, pleasurably so, but the natural leavener is merely the result of a careful nurturing of the wild yeasts that surround us, both in the air and on the grains themselves.)
The laboratory he has to work in is equally simple. A long wooden table, nicked and scarred from many years of chopping huge masses of dough down into single-loaf pieces. A balance, commonly called a scale, which looks as if it was lifted from a 19th century bakery and planted on the table. To be candid, it very well may have been. Stacks of flour sacks, a ton or more, which weekly are reduced to the bottom, only to be replenished for the next week ’s labor. A larger mixer, capable of churning and kneading 150 pounds of dough at a time, quietly and powerfully combining the elements that go into good bread, not unlike the mule at the side of the farmer, ready to work at his command. And an oven, a vast plane of stone and steam that can hold over 100 loaves at a time, blistering and caramelizing the boules or baguettes at nearly 500°, infusing the space with steam to produce the crackly crust and moist soft interior (the “crumb”) so sought after in artisanal loaves.
And produce he does. He, and the other bakers who work during the day, churn out over 500 loaves a day, each cut, shaped, nurtured, scored and baked by hand. Even the fi nish, the reveal, the choirs of-angels-singing moment as the loaves are brought forth from the oven, is accomplished by means of a 10-foot peel, the flat paddle used to gently remove the loaves from their fiery bed.
Andy has mastered all these elements, producing world-class breads on a consistently high level. The customers of Bluegrass Baking Company are a sophisticated lot, many whose roots are in cultures where bread plays a more important role than in ours: Russia, Germany, France, Poland. These people are brought to Lexington for a myriad of reasons — the university, Lex Mark, the horse industry — but they are united at the bakery for a common cause: good bread. Many is the customer who is reduced to grinning babble as they taste a childhood memory or are returned to the quality and care of bread as they were used to back home. And they leave with sacks brimming with crusty loaves, crackly and caramel brown, a sample of crust wedged in their mouth. Day after day the pile of flour is transmogrified from base elements into golden loaves, the Sisyphean effort pushed to its gastronomic extreme, only to submit to tying on apron, measuring water and grain and, shoulder to load, beginning again and again.
It is not this vast production of topnotch bread that appeals most to Andy. Every night he coaxes the baguette to its fullest expression, carefully gauging the variables, putting them into his experience memory bank, and dances with the dough until the best-quality loaf emerges. But it is the extremes that interest him. For example: a well risen, structurally sound loaf of all rye flour. Rye has no gluten, therefore will not develop a matrix to capture the fermentation gases that allow the loaf to rise. To produce a whole rye loaf that is more palatable than a brick is indeed a feat.
Or a 100% hydration whole wheat loaf, a process that uses equal weight of flour and water. You and I would call this porridge, but Andy calls it a soft dough. One that with careful and constant turning and kneading, all by hand (these “master” loaves never see the inside of a mixer) will yield, almost by magic, a sound loaf of exquisite crust and crumb.
It is in the pursuit of these baking holy grails that Andy’s passion reveals itself. To produce quality loaves on a consistent basis requires the focus and attention of a master technician. But to be constantly pushing the envelope of what is possible, never settling for the merely terrific, describing a quality baguette, one that would grace any table, as “not bad,” these are the qualities that set him apart from the mere practitioners. And night after night he stands in front of the table, the large bowl that he uses to mix his doughs by hand, his little jars of precious leaven that he has nurtured from nothing into a powerful force that enlivens the doughs, turns on some music to be the sound track of his labors, and begins again.