Slowly Risen and Formed by Hand at Nashoba Brook Bakery

by By Andrea Pyenson

Standing on the small terrace behind his bakery-café in West Concord looking over the Nashoba Brook and woodlands beyond, Stuart Witt recalls that neighbors thought he and his partner, high school friend John Gates, were crazy to open their business, Nashoba Brook Bakery, in this location 17 years ago. Turning to look inside at the baker’s racks stacked with namesake loaves, cases displaying beautiful pastries, and clusters of people enjoying them all at the café’s tables, it appears the men knew exactly what they were doing.

“It’s hard 365 days a year to make great artisan bread,” Gates says. Even harder, perhaps, when applying age-old techniques to produce bread at a sizable scale. But Gates is not complaining. The 15 bread bakers at Nashoba Brook are up to the task, producing roughly 5,000 loaves of delicious, crusty, chewy, slow-rise bread every day. (There are also four bakers dedicated to pastry.) In addition to its own cafe, the company sells its bread to more than 100 supermarkets and gourmet shops in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and a number of restaurants, hotels and other cafes. And their presence is growing.

When Nashoba Brook first opened, the cafe served pre-made sandwiches, but over the years staff has expanded so that they now offer freshly made sandwiches, soups, prepared salads, breakfast burritos and quesadillas, waffles and more. Witt is very excited about a griddle they installed a couple of years ago that made possible their “wildly popular” breakfast sandwiches. “We love the idea of a community coming together, breaking bread,” says Gates. “One of the reasons for starting this business is [its] 6,000-year tradition.”

Witt, the head baker, worked for an artisan bread company in Burlington, Vermont for 6 years before opening the bakery. Passion for his craft is apparent as soon as he starts talking, describing the artisanal ethos he carries into his current venture. “We mix gently, ferment slowly, and we don’t use machines [to cut and form the dough],” he says. “Doing it with your hands gives you so much more control, and you can be so much more gentle than with machines.”

Most of the company’s breads begin with a 100% sourdough starter that Witt, made from local, wild Concord grapes when he and Gates opened the bakery. The bread bakers feed it wild yeast, known as “the chef,” every day to keep it alive.

Stepping into Nashoba Brook’s 4,000-square-foot kitchen, confronted immediately by the 16-ton, floor-to-ceiling French brick oven, induces a particular kind of lust—at least for anyone who likes to bake. The aroma of bread in all its stages, from fermenting dough to baking loaves, only adds to the almost dizzying feel. Even the heat on a late June day is comforting rather than oppressive (though working through it in the humidity of summer may be less so).

The oven was built by hand over 10 days “by a Frenchman who didn’t speak a lick of English,” according to Witt, using bricks imported from his native country. A network of enclosed, water-filled pipes snakes under and around the decks inside, helping maintain an even temperature. Before each batch of bread goes into the oven (which can bake 300 loaves per hour), water is injected into the sides onto large, tempered channels, creating a burst of steam. This helps create the thick, crispy crust with that nice crackle that is one of the hallmarks of a stellar loaf. “The distribution of heat is key,” Witt explains. And the bricks help the oven retain heat. Staffers turn it off at night, and in the morning it is still hot enough to bake cookies. The kitchen has another nearly identical oven that Witt helped build with a local engineer, also from France.

“One of our signatures is in the mixing,” Witt notes, walking to the rear of the kitchen, where the process begins. In two “old school” French mixers, the bakers combine flour, water, starter and salt—one mixer holds 300 pounds of flour, the other 200 pounds. “We mix aggressively and tightly for 10 minutes,” Witt explains. Then they fold the dough gently. Gluten, the protein compound that gives bread its chewy texture, starts to form after five minutes. There is always somebody monitoring the process, watching to speed the mixer up or slow it down. “The trick is to get [the dough] off the side of the bowl without tearing it,” Witt notes.

Bread makers mix 700 pounds of dough at a time, which can fill two ovens. When it has come together, a mechanical hoist raises the bowl and tilts it, tipping the contents into buckets, where it ferments for 10 to 12 hours. During this slow fermentation process, enzymes and nutrients are released that will make the finished product healthier and easier to digest than commercial loaves, most of which are made with additives. Slow fermentation also enhances the bread’s flavor, texture and color. “That’s why we do it,” Witt says.

Given the current food landscape, it is impossible to talk about bread, or any baked goods really, without raising the issue of gluten and the increasing numbers of people who are either avoiding it or cutting back on their consumption. “We do hear about [gluten],” Gates says. “One of the things that’s been really interesting for me is we get testimony from people who are gluten-sensitive who can eat our bread. There’s a part of that that feels intuitive to me.”

He continues, explaining that bread can be traced to the beginning of civilization, when natural yeast was the leavening agent. “It wasn’t until World War II that commercial yeast came into common use,” he says. There are those who believe the way wheat is processed has contributed to the rise in celiac disease (a condition in which any exposure to gluten causes an immune reaction in the small intestine) and gluten-sensitivity (a less clear-cut condition that cannot be diagnosed by any tests). But nothing has been proven definitively. Gates explains, “Long fermentation makes bread more digestible.” The process breaks down proteins and carbohydrates. And, even at its hottest temperature, he notes, “The core of the loaf is still cool enough that probiotics are still active.”

Buckets of dough sit, fermenting, in the rear of the bakery. “The bakers know by feel how much air is in it, by how sticky it is, when to cut it,” Witt says. At that point they bring it to the bench. Imagine a 160-pound, thick but pliable, slightly-gooey looking mass—a bucketful of dough—spread across a large flat surface. A team of bakers surrounds it, cutting off pieces and forming them into rounds. “We give it a little massage, use the surface tension to wrap it in its skin, then let it sit another hour before shaping it into its final form,” Witt explains of this most tactile step in the roughly 24-hour bread-making process. “Timing is everything. It’s a challenge every day. Some bakers think it’s monotonous, but if you’re in the zone and you care, it’s not monotonous.”

Witt says he changes recipes slightly during the summer. Heat and humidity causes the dough to get so sticky it’s hard to handle. He reduces the amount of starter to make the dough move more slowly. With the addition of a new baker, John Lowe, from Scotland, to the baking staff, Nashoba Brook is starting to experiment with whole grain and whole rye recipes, the latter using a rye starter.

Gates says, “The future for us is in the heart of this discussion of the 6,000-year-old tradition and the digestibility of the bread. That serves us well in the future.”

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