Edible Food Finds: Bread Obsession
Photos by Katie Noble
The basket of bread on the counter is filled with shades of brown, varying textures, shapes, and sizes, all breads from Bread Obsession, a wholesale bakery in Waltham. I choose a dark oblong loaf scattered with bands of sunflower seeds, and that night the dense, rich, and sour bread enhances our meal of beans, sausage, and sautéed greens. The next week I stand before Bread Obsession’s table at a farmers market ready to try another loaf. There are crispy baguettes with knobby ends and a crusty round cherry boule. There is a bread made with semolina flour, a choice of rye breads, cardamon buns, and bagels covered with salt.
What do you do if you love to make bread and your family doesn’t like to eat it? If you are Varda Haimo of Bread Obsession you keep baking bread and start your own bread business to sell it to people who love to eat it. You sell the bread to friends and at farmers markets, and, when that’s not enough, you begin a wholesale business. And you keep baking.
Varda began baking bread as a hobby in 2008. “I had a whole other career and that was interrupted,” Varda says. “So I learned how to make bread.” Then, in early 2010, she began a quest to create Tzitzel Rye, a sandwich rye bread she remembers eating as a child in St. Louis. “I could have made any number of bad rye breads and that would have been easy,” she says. “But I was trying to recreate something that I had had when I was growing up. And that was hard.”
It was then that Varda stumbled upon the website, TheFreshLoaf.com, and discovered “an enormous international community of bread bakers.” People who are fascinated by bread, both amateur and professional bakers, offer their knowledge to anyone willing to jump in and ask questions. So that’s what Varda did. “You’ll bake some loaf that you think is fabulous and you post it and nobody says anything,” she says. “Or you post something that you had no idea would be so interesting to people and you get 40 comments on it.”
With help from TheFreshLoaf community, Varda was successful in creating the Tzitzel Rye, but she didn’t stop there. Her next quest was to make a New York Rye. “The Jewish bread is what I grew up with,” she says. Rye malt was the hardest ingredient to find when she wanted to make a certain Russian rye bread called Borodinsky, (she found it at Homebrew Emporium, a brewery supply house in Cambridge.) She had no interest in making baguettes until her sister, who used to live in France, began making them. Now, with their crunchy exterior, their light and chewy interior, and their trademark twisted ends, they’re one of her most popular breads.
The baguettes are one of the dozen breads, buns, and bagels Bread Obsession makes and sells weekly in addition to another six or so specialty breads. “Salt bagels are another thing I grew up with that I could never find,” Varda says. “Everything I sell has a different story attached to it.”
Her Durum Levain has such a story. When a Canadian baker began posting his efforts to bake an Italian bread called Altamua, Varda wanted to make it as well. “It was one of these totally fascinating breads,” she says. A year later, after making a few small changes to the recipe, “All of a sudden I was able to make this bread that I just totally fell in love with—that was wonderful.”
Made with semolina flour, the same flour used to make pasta, the crusty-on-the outside, creamy-on-the inside bread is their biggest selling loaf. “And rightly so,” she says. “It’s delicious.”
Inspired by her memories and by bakers from around the world, Varda eventually learned how to reproduce the bread she had grown up with, but then she had a problem. Her husband didn’t like rye bread and her kids wouldn’t eat it. “So I decided I would try to sell to my friends,” she says.
She would let her friends know what she was making, and they would order the bread and buy it. She made so much, though, that after a year, even her friends and their friends weren’t buying and eating all the bread she was baking. “It was a real conundrum,” she says.
Varda wanted to continue baking so she sought advice from a couple of retired executives through SCORE, a free service which offers a network of expert business mentors. Their recommendation was that she sell her bread wholesale and directly at farmers markets as a way to talk to people. In 2014, she took their advice, applied for a wholesale license, found a business partner in her long time friend Joan Forman, and began searching for wholesale customers.
Artistry on the Green, a restaurant in Lexington, was their first customer. “They were just opening and right down the hill from me,” she says. Now two of her breads, Flaxseed Rye and Durum Levain, fill the bread baskets on each table.
A couple of wine stores in Lexington sell her bread: Berman’s Fine Wine & Spirits and Apex Wine & Spirits. “I have people who show up before their delivery,” Andrew Mueller, owner of Apex says. “They make an excellent product, and we have a big following as a result.”
As Bread Obsession is sold in more stores and markets, Varda has learned that each location’s clientele has its own favorite breads. The Borodinsky and the Sunflower Seed breads are big sellers at the farmers markets (Wayland in the winter and Waltham in the summer). People may call Sophia’s Greek Pastry in Belmont to hold a loaf of the Flaxseed Rye, and the Durum Levain and baguettes are popular there as well. She’s also learned that it’s not always just about the breads alone. “There are a lot of interesting ways to serve the bread,” she says. At Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, you might find a Reuben made on the Borodinsky or a Cuban made on the Durum Levain. Spoke Wine Bar’s chef, John DaSilva, says he discovered Bread Obsession when the owner of Dave’s Fresh Pasta brought him a baguette. Now he makes lemon breadcrumbs with the Durum Levain to finish a seafood garganelli small plate. He slices thin and deep fries the New York Rye to create rye chips. The chips are seasoned with sea salt and vinegar powder then served with a warm smoked mackerel mousse, pickled mustard seeds, and fresh grated horseradish. The chips are a customer favorite, John says, and they’re his too.
Bread Obsession recently moved into a commercial kitchen in Waltham, about three times larger than its previous kitchen, and is now adapting its recipes to being baked in a real bread oven instead of a convection oven. The staff is small, just Varda, Joan, and another baker plus a couple of delivery people.
“I want to make this bread and I want more people to eat it. I want to get as big as I can get and still make good bread,” Varda says. And that’s a real limitation. “I’d sooner shutdown then cross over that line. The whole point is to make good bread, to provide good bread, to have good bread available. If I’m no longer doing that then there’s no reason for it to exist. … I’d just be another bad baguette maker.”