Aeronaut-2
Aeronaut-2

ARTISAN BREAD COMES TO WORCESTER
PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH CECIL

The mahogany crust crackles open to reveal an interior that’s both chewy and moist at the same time; at first bite, the fragrant loaf practically sings of its superiority. Naturally-leavened, artisan bread has finally arrived in Worcester with the opening of BirchTree Bread Company and Crust Bakeshop.

It’s taken a long time and a circuitous path for the new artisan bread movement to reach this city. For the past decade or so bakeries producing naturally-leavened bread have flourished in the eastern and western parts of the state, while in Central Massachusetts, the tiny Five Loaves Bakery in the small town of Spencer developed a following for its artisan breads chiefly through sales at farmers markets. Five Loaves’ naturally-leavened bread, and its baker Darren Collupy, provided a link between Worcester’s new bakeries and the founder of the new artisan bread movement.

That family tree originated almost 30 years ago at Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic. There, baker Richard Bourdon revived the age-old French bread baking practice of using a starter that captures wild yeast and bacteria from the air—instead of commercially produced yeast—to begin the natural fermentation process. He also introduced a much higher level of hydration to the bread making process. Wetter dough and a 500-degree baking temperature produce loaves with the unmistakable contrast in textures.

Richard’s bread soon achieved cult status, attracting would-be artisan bakers from all over the world. One of his most famous apprentices, Chad Robertson, went on to open his own bakery, Tartine, in San Francisco. Chad also wrote what’s now regarded as the bible of artisan baking, Tartine Bread.

The lineage of naturally-leavened bread continues with BirchTree Bread Company’s Rob Fecteau and Crust Bakeshop’s Tim Hansen. Both bakers studied and adapted Chad and Richard’s techniques. The loaves they produce, however, are very different; so are their bakeries.

BirchTree Bread Company is located on the ground floor of Crompton Place, site of a refurbished, historic fabric mill. It has a huge space—5,800 square feet—to grow into, while Crust Bakeshop’s small storefront on the northern end of Worcester’s Main Street is already bursting at the seams.

In a market that’s been hungry for authentic, crusty bread, the new bakeries have quickly found loyal followings. On weekends, bread fresh from the oven sometimes sells out within an hour.

“It’s a micro-renaissance in bread,” said Alec Lopez, owner of Crust, “and a great time for customers. They get to choose from two, really good, but different styles.”

On a quiet Monday morning, the only day when BirchTree isn’t open for business, Rob is almost apologetic at the size of his bakery. “We needed only a third of the space,” he explained, “but the owner of the building didn’t want to split it up; he gave me a good deal on the rent.”

Rob and two assistants, Travis Williams and Nick Rozowsky, work at a custom made, solid maple worktable in a small section bordered by counters. They use two big mixers, a Hobart and an Empire, to blend up 300 pounds of dough and a five-deck oven that bakes 100 loaves of bread at a time.

On weekends, crowds come for the winter farmers market and consignment shops downstairs. They also fill the bakery’s dozen or so booths and tables lining the perimeter of the big room, spilling over onto a big sofa and easy chairs in the center. On Saturdays, live music ups the ambience. Rob’s niece, Erin Power, is the barista who pours locally-roasted coffee; chef Justin Dupuis serves a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches made with locally-sourced ingredients and Rob’s breads.

The baker himself trained as a chef in a certified apprenticeship program under Stanley Nicas, locally-famed chef-owner of The Castle restaurant in Leicester. “Chef Nicas was a role model for me,” Rob said. “He was a boson’s mate during World War II—when he blew the whistle, people jumped. That was what it was like in his kitchen. While that’s not my style, I learned that the chef has to be the leader—you do things his way.”

Aeronaut-2
Aeronaut-2

While at The Castle, Rob became interested in bread. He approached Darren Collupy at Five Loaves Bakery, offering his help in exchange for learning how to work with naturally leavened dough. “I’d work from 11am to 11pm at The Castle, then head to Five Loaves until 2 or 3am,” he said.

Rob would eventually spend a market season working with Darren and his wife, Connie, who does the farmers markets, makes pastries and handles the business end of the bakery. The young baker adapted the techniques and styles of bread he learned from them. The coriander raisin loaf he now sells at BirchTree is an homage to Five Loaves’ fennel seed and raisin bread.

Throughout its history Five Loaves has maintained a loyal clientele at farmers markets. Most days Connie barely has time to set up before a line forms for the bread.

“We’ve done as many as eight markets in one season,” she said, “including the Copley Square market.” This summer Five Loaves will be at markets in Barre, Holden, Hopkinton, and Westborough.

Connie recalls having to educate customers when she first started selling Five Loaves’ bread at farmers markets. “People didn’t understand why our bread wasn’t priced like the supposed 'artisan' bread they bought at the supermarket. But once they taste our bread, they don’t go back.”

After Rob moved on from Five Loaves, he continued to hone his bread baking skills while working as a chef at Table Three Restaurant Group’s The Duck in Sturbridge. He baked sourdough bread to complement paté served at the restaurant and once paired German black bread with bratwurst at one of the monthly beer tasting dinners.

A three-month stay in San Francisco led Rob to the famed Tartine Bakery where he was allowed to observe and ask a lot of questions. Back in Massachusetts, Rob and his wife (and business partner), Avra Hoffman, visited with Richard Bourdon. “He was very generous in sharing his time and knowledge with us,” Rob said.

With a ten-year-old-starter he brought home from San Francisco, Rob started producing his own artisan loaves to sell at farmers markets in Cambridge and Somerville. He got help from the Collupys, who let him bake at Five Loaves.

Rob is still using the same starter today at his own bakery, where it rests in the refrigerator between feedings. “I usually feed it in the evening before I leave, and then the next morning I mix dough with most of it. I always keep a small portion aside and refrigerate it,” Rob said.

Using natural leaven is a much slower process than baking with commercial yeast. “It’s not as aggressive,” Rob explains. An hour or two after the starter is mixed with flour, water and salt, the dough gets folded, rather than strenuously kneaded. The process is replicated again in three to four hours, depending upon the temperature and humidity of the bakery.

Dough made with natural leavening is much softer and wetter than commercial bread dough. “My bread is between 85% and 100% hydrated,” Rob said, “while typical bakery bread is only 45-50% hydrated. That’s why it dries out so much faster.”

Aeronaut-2
Aeronaut-2

Naturally-leavened bread, with its higher content of moisture and acidity from the starter, stays fresh for days without preservatives. Rob uses local wheat flours from Massachusetts; Upinngill Farm in Gill, and Four Star Farms in Northfield, certified organic rye from Champlain Valley Milling in Westport, New York and Vermont’s King Arthur brand for white flour.

For its final rise before baking, the dough goes into couches and bannetons—oval and cylindrical baskets—with flax linen liners handmade by Rob’s mother and sister.

Across town at the Crust Bakeshop, Tim Hansen is just as protective of his own, seven-year-old starter.

“It’s sour, but not super-sour,” he said. “Over time it has developed the character of the bakery’s environment.” That likely includes elements of the bakery’s more famous sister business, the gastropub Armsby Abbey, located a couple of doors up the street. Armsby Abbey has earned national fame for its extensive collection of craft beers and locally-sourced menu including artisan bread, which was the genesis of the bakery. “When the owner of the Sierra Nevada Brewery visited us, he took a handful of our starter home with him and made beer from it,” Tim said.

Crust grew out of the cramped kitchen of the pub, at first supplying baked goods for the Abbey’s customers. Since mid-2014 the bakery has been open for retail sales.

At a stainless steel worktable in close quarters shared with pastry chef Alexis Kelleher, Tim shapes sourdough loaves, baguettes, ciabatta, focaccia and a maple IPA bread that uses beer for half its liquid content. The room is kept warm by two steam injected insulated hearth ovens and a double convection oven. The bakery sources its wheat flour from Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon and white flour from King Arthur.

In the early morning, customers line up for bagels, croissants and Alexis’ brioche doughnuts. Ethereally light, they’re baked, not fried. Many of Crust’s fans are students from the dormitory of MA College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences across the street and employees of the Worcester County Courthouse two blocks away.

During lunch hour there are sandwiches for takeout; a display case and shelves in front of the bakery hold artisan cheeses, charcuterie, jams, and Crust’s homemade granola.

Tim’s culinary training was at Johnson & Wales, but he didn’t work in the food industry until he was persuaded to help out at a friend’s bakery. Soon, he was turning out 2,500 loaves every week.

“It wasn’t the style of baking I wanted to do, so I started working with natural leavening to push my skills,” he explained. Tim baked at Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough before coming to work for Alec and his partner Sherri Sadowski two years ago.

“Tim brought our baking to a whole new level,” Alec said. “We actually have had bakery customers thank us for being here. People will buy a loaf of bread and I’ll start to put it into a bag; they’ll say, ‘Don’t bother. I’m going to start eating it as soon as I leave.’”

Crust and BirchTree’s customers tend to be much more knowledgeable and appreciative of the breads’ quality than those early skeptics who Connie Collupy had to convince to try authentic artisan bread. Asked to appraise the competition represented by the two new bakeries, Connie observed, “There are enough people in Worcester County to support three bakeries.”

BirchTree Bread Company birchtreebreadcompany.com 774.243.6944 138 Green St, Worcester

Crust Bake Shop crustbakeshop.com 774.823.3355 118 Main St, Worcester

Five Loaves Bakery fiveloavesbakery.com 508.885.3760 13 Mechanic St, Spencer

Margaret LeRoux is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about local food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it. She’s happy to live in Central Massachusetts where there is an abundance of all three. You can reach her at: margaret.leroux@gmail.com

MARGARET LEROUX is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about local food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it.