Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obsession series #1: Farm and Sparrow

This is my first post in the Obesssion Series: a series of posts about dedicated craftspeople (this includes farmers, bakers, cheesemakers, and actual craftspeople) who do what they do because they love it. They work hard, wake up early, and stand at market booths ready to answer questions and talk about their work. I think we see a lot of glorification of politicians, celebrities, and corporations and very little of those who give life meaning through their dedication to a trade that might be viewed as obsolete. And indeed, we, the craftspeople of America, are obsolete. There is technically no need for cheesemakers when machines can do four times as much work in half the time. There is no need for bread bakers and their stone ovens when factories can turn out thousands of loaves of bread a day at a fraction of the cost of an artisanally made loaf. But then, we haven't completely forgotten what it is like to taste sheer pleasure, and so the craftspeople work on. These posts are dedicated to the obsolete Americans.

Farm and Sparrow is a local wood-fired bakery that makes all sorts of incredible breads and pastries. I am very particular about my bread in general, finding the supermarket stuff to be spongy, flavorless, and boring, so I do not use the word "incredible" lightly. I always set up beside them at market, and the smell is enough to make you crazy. Their pastries are superbly buttery, golden, and flaky, and while they always have the good ol' standbys (plain, chocolat, and apricot) they are always experimenting with really unusual flavors and local, seasonal produce. Recently, the local apple tarts with apricot glaze have been at market. The glaze makes them glisten, and caramelizes on the bottom of the tarts, making them slightly crunchy. They also feature a savory pastry (although I have to say that even their "sweet" pastries aren't too sweet--for instance, the pain au chocolat is made in the traditional manner, placing a square of high-quality dark chocolate in the center), which is always fascinating. I distinctly remember one that I had--green beans, cherry tomatoes, and cheddar. The latest one has purple potato puree in it among other things, and the only reason that I haven't tried it is because I'm trying to cut back on spending. But then, I might just cave in if I think about it too much.

And their breads...the seeded loaf is my favorite, covered in nicely browned seeds that crunch. Their Russian Raisin bread is wonderful as well. It's a dark, dense bread made with rye flour and kirsch-soaked raisins. It will last for weeks, and the older it gets the better the flavor is. They use mostly heirloom grains, and they grind some of them themselves. They always sell out at market--always.

I think what inspires me about bakers is the same thing that inspires me about cheesemakers--patience. Bread is improved by time. Long-time bakers will often brag about their 25 year old starter. Most yeast breads require at least a couple days of rising time before baking. You mix together the starter and let it sit overnight (if not longer--I know that the starter for Amish Friendship Bread requires about 10 days to mature, and all sourdough breads are similar to this), and then you still have a few hours of rising time for the dough before you can put it in the oven. Bread is not a microwave food. It takes time, patience, and strong wrists for kneading. And if you rush it, the bread just won't be as good as it could be.

Bread baking is also more scientific than you might imagine. My favorite bread book is The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, because she gets really detailed about the ratios of fat to water to yeast to flour, about the life cycle of yeast, and about the different types of "sponges." You don't necessarily have to know these things to be able to make good bread, but I tend to appreciate looking at things from a scientific viewpoint. If we begin to think of our food not as just food but as a living thing, we will begin to eat very differently, and consequently we will be healthier, happier people.

Here's to the bakers.

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