The landscape changed when I drove from Eastern Canada into Vermont (United States). I left behind large, agricultural fields, spreading across valleys and hills, and entered Vermont’s Green Mountains. Winding through countryside roads, I contemplated a lush, mixed forest, and the Appalachian mountain range as it embraced valleys, lakes, and rivers. I was on my way to meet millers and bakers Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn, at Elmore Mountain Bread. As I drove further on narrow and muddy roads, my senses became more and more exhilarated as I felt the remoteness and powerful presence of the Putnam State Forest.
I reached the end of a small road that was bordered by cozy houses and spotted the red mailbox that signaled my final destination. The house down the entrance way looked traditional, and rather small for a bakery. I caught sight of a mixer running by one of the bakery’s windows and saw Andrew slightly bent over it, paying attention to the dough. Blair stepped out of the house and welcomed me to their off-the-beaten-track home and bakery.
I had met Andrew and Blair at the 2016 Kneading Conference, in Skowhegan (Maine), where Andrew had brought a granite millstone and shown us how to carve furrows and lands. I had also read about them in Amy Halloran’s book The New Bread Basket. After immersing myself into the craft and culture of farmer bakers in France, it was a revelation to meet North American pioneers of a new generation of bakers who milled their own flour. I wanted to make this pilgrimage to their bakery to witness their craft and lifestyle as miller bakers (and stone mill builders too!), and learn about their vision of a new farming, milling, and baking ethos.
Day 1—From Mixing to Proofing
Dropping my gear in Andrew and Blair’s small, but open and well-lit living room, I breathed in the deep, nutty, and earthy aroma of fermentation. It was not the fragrance of flour nor freshly baked bread, but the organic, living scent of fermentation. It was the smell of the living processes that give birth, breath, and breadth to bread. The bakery is their home.
At ten o’clock on this sunny, spring morning, Andrew had started mixing the autolyse. All the doughs were to be mixed on this day, then proofed or bulk fermented in the cold chamber, and baked the next day in the wood-fired brick oven. The oven was already gleaming with elongated flames that slowly licked its vault, radiating a profound heat that warmed even the core of my bones. The oven’s heating pace was unhurried, as only a very long firing cycle could bring the heat to sink deep into the thick masonry.
Batch after batch, Andrew measured freshly milled flour and water into the arm mixer (a rare sight in North America while more common in Europe), and mixed it into a rather stiff autolyse dough. The dough rested about an hour in tubs, and then was mixed once again with a preferment (mostly leaven, but poolish was used for the baguette and focaccia doughs). Rather late in the kneading process, Andrew added more water and the salt. “I add the salt rather later than sooner,” Andrew said, “because otherwise the impermeability of the dough increases, the gluten becomes strong too fast, and I cannot get the very long development I’m looking for. The varieties of wheat we’re using, and the fact that the flour is freshly milled, change the way we work.”
Freshly milled flour made with local varieties of wheat reacts differently according to crops’ location, grain storage humidity, and the overall quality and property of the grain itself. Therefore, Andrew had to pay close attention to the dough’s hydration (between 80 and 85%). For this, he used a technique called bassinage in French: he started mixing with a stiff autolyse and dough, and slowly hydrated the dough through the kneading process. The pace of an arm mixer is one of the slowest among all available mixers, and it took up to twenty minutes to achieve the volume and structure that Andrew was expecting. Andrew and Blair want good bread wheat, but not necessarily with a high protein content: a protein level of 12% is good enough for their purpose. In the past, they have milled and made bread with locally sourced wheat that could have barely been tagged as “bread wheat.”
Andrew stood still beside the mixer—his long, slightly curved shape leaning forward—while he paid very close attention to the dough. A piercing gaze, along with a grayish Rajasthani-like beard and mustache, conferred an aura of dignity. Once kneaded, the dough was divided into sub-batches that were put into tubs. Andrew stacked them on chariots and shelves and then continued to fold the dough following a precise timing.
Blair had gone teleskiing two days before (an activity she had not had the opportunity to do for years). She said she felt stiff as she joined Andrew to divide and shape the loaves. A joyful, energetic, and forthcoming woman in her mid-thirties, Blair did not hide that bread making had progressively scarred her body: “I’m a baker, and I can’t live without baking!” she said. “But because of the repetitive gestures, dividing, shaping, I feel some pain. This is why we’re using a divider and the table loader, to make it easier on ourselves, and to keep doing it after all these years.” Andrew, in his early forties, added: “I can see myself building mills for the next ten or twenty years. But baking would become really hard.”
The country dough—made with flour milled from Champlain Valley Mills organic wheat—had been mixed with water that was slightly too hot. I tried to shape it, but it tore most of the time. I watched Blair as she handled the dough softly, but with precise gestures, and formed the dough into balls which she let rest for a few minutes. We then shaped bâtard loaves that we put on linen canvas.
The Vermont Redeemer dough made exclusively with flour milled from Rogers Farmstead’s Redeemer wheat (grown in Vermont) was incredibly soft, fatty, and supple. In the old arm mixer, the dough’s gluten structure took a very long time to develop. Andrew said: “The gluten network of this dough will not develop well in the mixer. I’ll add more water, and the structure will develop as I fold the dough a few times later on. It just drinks so much water that it’s impossible to get it all done in the mixer. It takes time.”
Other doughs Andrew and Blair divided, shaped, and couched on linen canvas included Thornhill rye, made with winter rye from Thornhill Farm; Seven grain, made with cooked cracked barley, oats, corn grits, flax, and millet; Anadama, described as “Our Vermont take on a traditional New England bread, made with Butterworks Farm stone-ground cornmeal and Butternut Mountain Farm’s dark maple syrup”; and Foagies (Foccacia-Hoagies), a very versatile focaccia dough (with extra virgin olive oil) that can be transformed in sandwich or panini bread. The baguette dough, made with a poolish and Champlain Valley Mills wheat, was folded a few times before it began its bulk fermentation in the cold chamber. It was to be divided and shaped only the next day. By five o’clock in the evening, all the dough was stored away in the cold.
All day, Andrew had kept a vigilant eye on the fire in the oven, and had stacked the last pile of wood into it midway through the afternoon. Later in the evening, after a well-deserved meal and break, he’d spread the embers onto the hearth, to be removed only the next morning after a long resting period—oven-wise, a baker’s rest while bread is on its way is always too short!
Blair shared her thought on that matter: “Baking is really hard, no matter how satisfying it can be at the same time. It’s something Andrew and I want to do together, with no or as few employees as possible, in this remote area with little social life. Our community here is mostly built around bread—farmers, customers, and other bakers and chefs.” (They hire only one part-time employee, Sophia Berard, at the moment.)
“Baking together is what gives meaning to it all,” Andrew added.
We retired for an evening meal and conversation about their baking itinerary at a separate family house located by Lake Elmore. Because the bakery is Andrew and Blair’s home, enjoying a good time with family and friends in this “camp disguised as a house,” as Blair puts it, helps them to unwind. “This is the place where I can rest from my multitasking mind!” Andrew said.
History of the Bakery
The triangulation between Andrew, Blair and bread was a highly improbable event but proved to be a very successful match. Both Andrew and Blair were trained as cooks and chefs and went to culinary school. They actually met while Andrew was Blair’s boss in a restaurant.
Andrew told me the story of Elmore Mountain Bread in these words:
“Dave Deciucies lives a quarter mile up on the road. When he moved to the area about twenty years ago, he could not find any good bread. So, he taught himself how to bake and built a Quebec wood-fired clay oven in his backyard, attached to his wood shop. At the time, he worked as a nurse at a hospital. He would bake fifty loaves of bread, bring it to the hospital, give it to his friends, sell it to his colleagues. Everybody told him: ‘This bread is great! You should start a bakery!’ He bought a wood-fired brick oven plan from Alan Scott, and in 2004 built a five-by-seven-foot oven. He kept working at the hospital, all the while baking three days a week. That’s how Elmore Mountain Bread started. He did that for almost five years. He sold to restaurants, to the Elmore store and other shops. Then he sold the business as he did not want to work alone by himself in the bakery.
“The people who lived in this house where we are now located told Dave: ‘We could take over the bakery for you, if you don’t want to do it anymore.’ Dave agreed, and they built the exact same oven here and turned the house into a bakeshop. After less than a year, they realized it was not really for them. They were selling bread at a restaurant where Blair was working, and they asked her: ‘Do you happen to know anyone who would want to buy a bakery?’”
This was thirteen years ago. Blair and Andrew jumped in the adventure, without any experience in baking. The owners offered them three weeks of coaching, showed them how to mix, how to fire the oven, and how to shape. “After not even a dozen times baking with them, they told us: ‘Here you go!’ We took it over from there,” Andrew said.