Thursday, May 31, 2012

from wood to bread: Tradition Fires the Oven at Bear Mountain

(This article was first printed in the Rutland Herald April 23, 1992. Photos by permission of AJ Marro)

“I like piddling with wood – dry wood!” Ray Powers says as he looks up from his task of shoving 3-foot-long split slabs of damp-to-wet softwood into the firebox of his brick oven on Wallingford’s Bear Mountain.

In spite of the soaking a sleet storm gave the wood the night before, Powers’ customary serenity bears only an edge of impatience and belies the diabolical aspect of the scene: flames roaring and rumbling like a volcano, stretching through the fire-hole into the oven and licking heat into its arched roof preparatory to tomorrow’s bread baking. The fire heats not only the oven, but the 15 tons of sand surrounding it, which absorb and store the heat. The interior hearth is a hefty 4x5x2.5 feet at the arch’s peak. It can handle up to 40 of the round, rustic loaves – hefty in themselves – which are baked evenly by heat radiating from the arch and by Powers’ intricate system of rotation.

A massive 9-foot cube of brick, lined by a thin layer of vermiculite, encloses the whole thing. It is a replica of a 17th century French bread oven, built in 1983 by Jim Scialo of Harmony, Maine. Powers and his wife, Christine, hired Scialo to build their oven on the recommendation of Jules and Helen Rabin of Plainfield. Scialo had built their own dome-shaped oven.

An article about the Rabins in Country Life Magazine came at a propitious moment for the Powers, who were then living in Connecticut with their two small children, Kate and John. A company cutback put Ray out of his customer relations work with General Electric Co., and suddenly old dreams surfaced, of moving to Vermont, of cooking something, of using wood.

Why wood, for heavens’ sakes? Why this long, drawn-out, demanding process of firing up the big oven with wood when gas would do just as well for the finished bread, with far less physical effort? Well, besides the pleasure of working with wood, it’s cheap. Sweet, clean “junk” softwood slabs, the rounded sides sliced off logs preparatory to cutting them into planks, are used for little else but provide good heat for the oven, burning with so much heat that there is little residue, almost no pollution, says Chris.
Besides, Ray says, “Jules uses wood.”

When Rabin was asked how he and his wife chose to use wood, the answer turned out to be simple yet intricate. “We found ourselves saddled with a wood-fired oven,” Rabin recalled in a telephone conversation. Once again, good bread had been the result of an economic cutback – this time from Goddard College where Rabin was an anthropologist. During the first OPEC oil crisis in the early ‘70s, a group of Goddard people built a community oven. It proved underused, and so the Rabins began baking bread in it.

“We feel it a pity to use exotic fuels when Vermont is so rich in wood,” Rabin said. “We burn wood in the same spirit that we recycle glass and cardboard.”

And then there is the picturesque history of baking bread with wood. In France, where it’s an art form, bakers are worried that government environmental agencies will be closing down their wood-burning ovens. But some say that in the rustic unevenness of the crust you can see the flames. And they say, incredulously, that ignorant people think that bread can be made in a machine.

It is Sunday afternoon. Ray will feed the firebox every 15 or 20 minutes for about six hours, until a sensor deep in the sand registers 500° and one in the oven, itself, a whopping 1,000°. Each year, he burns 25 cords of wood in this manner. Around 10pm he’ll close the dampers to the two flues that lead out the back of the oven, fit a cast iron slab over the fire hole, lever the heavy outside door down with the counterbalance, sealing the heat into the oven, and retire.

During the last few hours of firing, he’ll be joined by Chris, who will come down the few steps from the kitchen into the scrubbed, quarry-tiled bakery to begin mixing the 330 loaves of Bear Mountain Bread for tomorrow’s baking. The bakery is toasty and sweet smelling as she stone-grinds the organic whole wheat and rye flour, tips a lump of natural leaven sourdough starter into the old 80-quart Hobart mixer, and adds salt and unbleached white flour. No milk, no butter of course, and no commercial yeast.

The use of a sourdough starter, or “mother,” in place of commercial yeast is another aspect of the wood-burning baking that appeals to the Powers. It’s the way it was always done – regular yeast was not available commercially until the late 1800s. It’s a personal thing – the starter is alive, and while retaining a whiff of its origins (in this case the Rabins’ Upland Breads Bakery), it will gradually form a distinct personality where it lives. Eating bread made with it is like eating a slice of life.

The big, ponderous Hobart makes quick work of the dough as Chris flicks finishing touches of flour from a scoop, watching the dough with a critical eye as it puffs and becomes elastic. "I still like that moment the dough takes on its own identity,” she says. At that point, both of them lean over the stainless bowl and drag and roll and coax the live, swelling dough up over the lip of the bowl. Batches drop into white 50-gallon pails like bodies being dumped into a well. SCHLUMMMMPHHH! The dough smells fresh, tastes lemony. Chris saves a lump of it for Wednesday’s starter and begins to mix the whole wheat dough. It will rest and rise throughout the short night.

On Monday they rise around 4 a.m. and after swabbing traces of last night’s inferno from the oven, Chris forms and Ray bakes the loaves. “That’s when,” says Chris, “we have THE discussion: If the room/dough/oven is warm enough in winter or cool enough in summer.”

After driving up twisty Route 140 out of Wallingford, and almost straight up the steep, rutted, dead-end road the bakery inhabits, a visitor is rewarded with small pita rounds that Chris rolls out of hanks of dough and Ray Bakes, slathered with apple butter.

“Our friends from out of state think it’s so romantic that we just chucked everything and came up here to make bread,” Chris says. “But you know, sometimes it is wonderful early in the morning when the kids are still asleep. It’s romantic in a way when we’re working quietly together watching the sun come up and the birds wake.” She shakes off the thought and begins to pleat long white French loaves into a length of heavily floured canvas for the last rise. Next she forms the round loaves of country white French, raisin, whole wheat and rye, in bannetons. This spring, along with a new logo and label, designed by artist friend Clare Bornarth, which features a woodcut of a real bear, they will introduce a honey oatmeal loaf.

Chris might deny it, and Bear Mountain Road’s mud-season might make them forget it, but the couple’s story is a classically romantic one, for in the beginning they each “took to the cloth.”
Ray entered the Order of the Jesuits and taught at a Jesuit boys’ school in Baghdad through the 1950s before he became headmaster.

During the 1960s, Chris entered a missionary order of nuns. Although she knew Ray as a friend of the family, the later reality of marriage to him, a life in the country, children, and the oven itself would have required an incredible leap of faith. But leaps of faith have become familiar to them – first when Chris left the convent and went back to school to get her degree at Fairfield University, where Ray, back from Baghdad, was dean of graduate admissions. There, their acquaintance deepened into friendship and beyond.
Ray rejoined the secular world he had left so long ago and they were married in 1977.

Ray now supposes that if he had not met Chris he would still be a Jesuit. Given that history, how long could they continue to lead the middle-class life in Connecticut? The leap to Vermont, to the oven, seems much more in character. The decision, by these innately religious people, to make bread, was both pragmatic and romantic, practical and transcendent, and humorous, to boot. The former priest who would have placed wafers of bread representing the body of Christ on penitents’ tongues now kneels in the very infernal heart of the bread-making process, and the woman who married him puts the sourdough to start new life in good, earthen flour, then kneads and forms and nurtures the loaves smooth as babies’ bottoms. Why bread? Why bread, indeed.

When Ray begins baking, the oven will have lost 50° since last night, down to a comfortable 450° for the long French, and down to 300° for the last whole wheat loaves in early afternoon – a remarkably small loss when one considers the number of cool loaves constantly peeled into the oven, the number of times the small door is opened. But there IS that 15 tons of hot sand.

When the baking is done – about 1 p.m. – there’s still paperwork, meeting the UPS deadline in the evening, and Ray’s 120 mile delivery run the next day. They ship to many out-of-staters, including ones allergic to commercial yeast.

Ray will start firing again on Wednesday, and again, in summer, on Friday, to sell bread at the local farmers’ market on Saturday. He is the coordinator of the Rutland County Farmers’ Market. Chris is busy driving children to extracurricular activities and music lessons, and is one of the founders of the new Lakes Region Children’s Orchestra.

After some very lean years, the business has achieved a level of success. “We’re together and we’re doing what we want to do, as much of the time or as little as we like,” says Ray. “AND, we call our own shots.”

There must be a worm in the apple somewhere?

“Only one,” Ray allows. “Wet Wood!”