A Handmade Life: Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery
by Rosie DeQuattro
Mamadou Mbaye, in a black kufi and clean white kitchen shirt and pants, is shaping baguettes by hand. Tall, handsome and lean, he strikes an imposing figure, which contrasts charmingly with his soft, friendly demeanor. When asked his age, he smiles self-consciously. "Let's see, I was born in 1968 so that would make me 41, 42, I don't count anymore." As he talks, he shapes loaves, rhythmically. His gloveless hands, coated with flour, never rest. He tells me his story of what a West African is doing making bread in Winchester, Massachusetts. A love of baking bread has been the continuing storyline in Mamadou's life. Summers in his native Senegal were spent baking bread for pocket money. He was fortunate to work with some good bakers in Dakar, Senegal's capital. The son of a veterinarian and a school principal, Mamadou grew up speaking English and still speaks Senegal's majority language, Wolof.
In his early 20s, after attending the University of Dakar, he came to the United States to continue studying engineering but found that baking bread was always on his mind. After a few years, he married his Senegalese childhood sweetheart, Mame, who had also emigrated to the United States, and together they settled in New York. Their son, Aldemba, was born in New York in 2000. Now 10 years old, Aldemba is a self-proclaimed Yankees fan.
When Aldemba was 1, the family moved to Winchester and worked in various jobs to save money to finally open a bakery of their own. When a small industrial building on Swanton Street in Winchester came on the market, Mamadou was ready to buy. The building has an attached garage, two parking spaces and a basement, and with its open-floor design it was perfect for the small artisan bakery Mamadou had imagined. But there was much work to be done. The space had once been a machine shop, then, more recently, a bakery, but still needed extensive renovations. Gradually, Mamadou and Mame replaced all the plumbing and the electrical system and began buying new professional baking equipment. A multi-deck steam oven from France makes an impressive centerpiece.
With the equipment in place, Mamadou began to bake. Even before the store opened, they began taking their breads to farmers markets. In Winchester, Arlington, Allston, Belmont and Waltham they found an interested public and developed a following. "Farmers markets have been the key to our success," Mamadou says. And as soon as the retail store opened, on November 25, 2008, customers found it. With no website and no advertising, farmers market exposure and word of mouth was all it took.
"People find us. I have customers coming to the store from Stoneham, Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, from everywhere," says a gratified Mamadou. The bakery also sells to the restaurant Catch in Winchester and to a handful of private schools. In the spring, he'll add Acton to his list of farmers market locations.
It's the kind of place you feel you've discovered-"a hidden jewel," is what many say. Were it not for its bright yellow awning, the little building would be easy to miss. It's in a dense neighborhood of triple-deckers and single-family homes, across from the Swanton Street Diner and the Triad Driving Academy. When you go, for sure you'll see Mamadou-he's the tall guy in the back making bread. With its open space, the bakery lets customers watch all the action. "I make bread six days a week. On Mondays [when he's not making bread] I come here to feed the starters and relax." He says it gets him to stand and move around rather than to sit on chairs. "I can do it all day long and never get tired."
There's no café, no pastries, just handmade bread: Paysan, Semolina, Whole Wheat Walnut, San Francisco Sourdough, Farmers Whole Wheat, Cinnamon Raisin, Challah, Italian and many others. Each weighs a little more than a pound; each is hand-shaped by Mamadou-he says it gives him complete control over the dough and that "you get a better product when the whole process is hand done." Mame is there everyday, too, taking care of the financial side of the business. And Aldemba arrives after school and does homework. Mame says she'd like to go back to Senegal someday; Mamadou agrees, but adds that, "At the moment my focus is here. As I grow older I think it would be nice to go back home."
In his native Wolof he says, "Defaral mburu bu baakh askanwi mooy sama jog jog," which means, making real bread for the people is my goal.
Mamadou's Artisan Bakery
63 Swanton St.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Edible Boston, and (full disclosure) one of the organizers of the Acton Boxborough FarmersMarket www.abfarmersmarket.org. You can read her food-related stories at Food and Wine With a Story, rosiedequattro.com, and follow her tweets at @rosiedequattro.