In the Hudson Valley, people have been finding good alternatives to mainstream bread for decades. Bread Alone began introducing European-style hearth breads to the area in the early 1980s. The bakery pioneered appreciation for wood-fired loaves with admirable crusts and was at the forefront of what is now known as the American Bread Movement. Now, you can find wood-fired bakeries and pizza ovens all over the country; in fact, the word artisan has become so popular, it sometimes appears on breads that aren’t particularly handcrafted at all.
But now another new food wave is burgeoning: the spreading revival of regional grain production. Across America, people are growing and milling grains outside the Wheat Belt. In the 1990s, Alton Earnhart, a Millbrook farmer, began growing grains for his own use. Baker Don Lewis of Wild Hive Community Grain Project milled some of Earnhart’s crop and incorporated it into his products.
Now, the Farm Hub in Hurley is in the midst of a multiyear investigation, seeking varieties that do well in the climate and soils. These two factors are key for farmers to be aware of when they consider switching to grain production, since it involves a lot of land, labor, a good infrastructure, and time. Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ulster County is helping farmers take advantage of this market opportunity.
Today, freshly milled grains and flours from Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners are transformed into the very authentic French-tasting baguettes and loaves at Café Le Perce in Hudson, Pane Rustico loaves and focaccias at Eataly NYC, and polentas at many restaurants. The grains — hard red, winter and spring wheat, soft wheat, corn products, ancient and heritage spelt and einkorn, and more — are grown by farmers in the Northeast, then stone ground in Clinton Corners. The milling process keeps the nutritious elements of wheat and other kernels intact. They become more than 30 different flours.
“We are milling fresh every week, to help insure that consumers have access to very fresh product at the peak of its nutrient value,” says Lewis, who closed his bakery and café a few years ago, to focus on producing more fresh-milled flour to sell.
Currently, you can buy Wild Hive goods in the bulk section at select natural-food outlets. The famous polenta will soon be easier to find, as distribution of 1.5- and 5-pound bags will start in stores throughout the region. Look also for a full line of flour for baking, ancient and heritage grains, as well as hulless barley and oats. Although the farm in Clinton Corners doesn’t sell retail, Lewis is starting to take orders via email. With a three-month window to use them, these lively foods differ vastly from their shelf-stable supermarket cousins.
Bread Alone just opened a new café in Lake Katrine that replaces the old Boiceville outlet (three other Bread Alone cafes are found in Woodstock, Kingston, and Rhinebeck). The new eatery — open for breakfast and lunch until 6 p.m. — offers a full line of its well-known breads, such as certified-organic French sourdough, nine mixed grain, and raisin-and-walnut levain, plus pastries, sandwiches, and salads, with indoor and outdoor seating. The shop’s interior is light and spacious, indicative of the large bakery behind it.
While the café is brand-new, the bakery is having its 32nd birthday. Still, it took time and more staff for the Bread Alone operation to expand locations and inventory. Help came in the form of Nels Leader, son of founder Dan Leader, who joined the company three years ago as COO. “For the last 15 years, I’ve been visiting the coolest bakeries in Europe,” says Dan. He knew the kind of ovens he wanted, and fortunately a German company, Hueft, decided to stretch its reach into the United States just as Leader was ready to begin his expansion. “Now our colleagues are following in our footsteps because this is the finest artisan baking equipment in the world,” he says.
The very sophisticated thermal oil ovens mimic brick ovens but offer a more controllable environment. Programmable tubes hold heated oil and work much like radiant floor heating. Unlike a wood-fired oven, the temperature in these ovens is easier to maintain or change.
The ability to control different parts of the baking process is a theme evident throughout the bakery, from the fermentation rooms, which need to be cold and humid, to the main production room, which is air-conditioned. The brick ovens in Boiceville won’t be cold for long, however. Dan is excited to explore the milling end of his profession. His wife and business partner, Sharon Burns-Leader, has worked in local-flour baking trials with researchers and food advocates in the Northeast. Plans are underway to retool the former location into a milling bakery, to produce different regional breads.
Amy Halloran is the author of The New Bread Basket (Chelsea Green Publishing). Learn more at www.amyhalloran.net.
Mario’s Brick Oven Breads in Hopewell Junction is an old-world Italian-style bakery with a brick oven that owner Mario Terronova imported from Italy and had constructed on-site when he opened more than 24 years ago. Originally from Sicily, Terronova longed to replicate traditional Italian and French loaves, and today he does, as well as rolls, pizza dough, and focaccia from a variety of King Arthur flours he brings in from Canada. Terronova sells both finished breads or dough that customers can pop in the oven at home for a really fresh, warm taste. At holiday time, lines often wind out the door, with customers favoring oval-shaped batons with sesame seeds and longer French baguettes. On Thursdays, the store also sells homemade rigatoni, penne, fettuccine, linguine, and ravioli, “but they sell out quickly,” an employee said. For any purchase, bring cash or a personal check; no credit cards are accepted.