My mouth waters at the mere thought of a piece of homemade bread right out of the oven, slathered with butter and a generous layer of Sweetlife jam. For years Bob has baked most of our bread. A casual interest was further ignited by a trip to Italy 30-some years ago, where we discovered breads baked in a wood-fired oven, and we built our first wood-fired oven the next year. We built our second wood-fired oven here at Sweetlife Farm about 15 years ago. Heating the mass of the oven takes hours of tending a fire; filled to capacity, this oven can bake as many as 20 loaves of bread at a time.
Early on we considered selling bread to go with our jams at the farmers’ market, and added baked goods to the list of WSDA-approved Sweetlife products. Alas, a great idea was staunched by a lack of hours in the day. At some point we began limiting our carbohydrate intake to control expanding waistlines, and bread became a treat rather than a daily staple, baked two loaves at a time in the kitchen oven. The wood-fired oven sits mostly idle, waiting for pizza nights with family and friends.
Enter Hannah: a member of the WWOOF (World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers) community, she arrived in August and quarantined in our tipi awaiting Covid test results before moving into the house, our "social bubble"-and our hearts!-as an adopted Sweetlife family member. Hannah has commercial baking experience, using commercial deck ovens, and shares Bob’s bread baking passion. To add perspective, I will also say that Hannah is a lifelong animal lover/vegetarian, and gently convinced us to try eating a vegan diet as an experiment, which put bread back on the daily menu….
Together, they studied the Tartine Bread Book, absorbing its wisdom about the art and practice of making bread. “A baker reads the weather, the flour, the levain, yesterday’s baked bread before starting to mix. A complex balance of yeast, bacteria, time, temperature, moisture, and fermentation acts on the simplest of ingredients; flour water and salt, to create one of humankind’s most elemental foods. The process is ancient and intuitive. It is craft, science, art, and philosophy.” Hours were spent around the dining room table with notes, lists and timelines. Lots of specialty flours were purchased, along with a cord of (expensive) hard wood, necessary for creating oven temps up to 800 degrees.
They re-lit the oven’s coals, spending a month of Wednesdays filling the air with the aroma of fresh-baked goodness. Baking in a wood-fired oven is an all day affair, not worth the effort or the fuel consumption for a couple of loaves of bread. To have an excuse to fire up the oven, they conspired for a hot minute to have “pop-up” bread events to cover the cost of purchasing all that hardwood and a lot of flour. Meanwhile, we put the word out to a dozen friends and neighbors that there would be bread at the end of Wednesdays.
Building a naturally fermented starter for the dough is a daily babysitting task that begins several days before the main event. On bake day, coordinating the timing and rhythm of heating the massive brick oven with the whims of different flours and rise times of the dough is a brain puzzle as challenging as any computer game. The day begins early: Hannah gets up at 4 to feed the starter one last time, and Bob kindles the fire at 6:30, to heat up the mass of bricks that will remain hot for hours after the coals are finally removed. Despite the early start time, bread has not yet emerged from the oven before 5PM. Each week new variables have led to last minute scrambles and lots of learned lessons; friends and neighbors don't seem to mind the imperfections.
At the end of a month, we are still (mostly) experimenting with a vegan diet that includes plenty of bread, along with cow’s milk in our latte, sometimes real butter on our bread, and an occasional meal that includes meat (which Hannah declines). On-the-ground requirements for managing Sweetlife Farm production and garden chores requires a shift in focus back to making bread in the kitchen, a couple of delicious loaves at a time….with baking in the woodfired oven an occasional play day for the bakers. Bob and Hannah are already plotting to resume their wood-fired baking experiments this winter, when life slows down and the garden sleeps....