I finally found the old KC Star article I was referring to:
The Art of bread Old World artisan loaves are growing in popularity, picking up where Wonder Bread left off
The Kansas City Star – April 14, 1999
Author: MARY SANCHEZ, The Kansas City Star
Everything about Manuel de la Rosa speaks of Old World ways. When he travels his tools are hand carried in a worn leather satchel, its seams repaired with metal coiled as thread.
The main ingredient for his craft, wedge-shaped red bricks , are imported from Barcelona, Spain. That is also where de la Rosa lives.
He is one of five people in the world trained to lay the bricks of a special hearth oven for bread baking – the type that has been used in Europe for generations.
In February, de la Rosa brought his art to a surprising place – a new HenHouse store being built in Overland Park at 123rd and Metcalf due to open in late May. For a week, he worked 12-hour days to build the wood-stoked oven .
Several years ago de la Rosa constructed an oven at Wheatfield’s, a specialty bakery in Lawrence. That such an oven would be constructed in a supermarket is indicative of the impact Old World breads are making in mainstream America.
“The fact that they are putting in this oven is really pretty bold,” says Thom Leonard, production manager with Farm to Market Bread Co. “But I think the time has come. People want really good bread and they want it fresh. And here they will be able to get bread that is being removed from a wood-fired brick oven .”
Farm to Market brought de la Rosa to Overland Park to construct the oven . The breads baked in it will be sold under the Farm to Market label, just one local example of what is commonly known as artisan breads.
The public’s desire for the breads is growing here and nationally, yet many say marketing them also must include a liberal dose of education. After all, most Americans were raised on Wonder Bread.
Many of the true artisan loaves have a unique appearance – they sometimes are allowed to rise in baskets so the weave imprint forms on the dough, and their crusts are hard and rough, often dotted with cheeses and herbs. Most are hand-shaped into loaves much more rustic and irregular than the uniform slices found wrapped in plastic on most store shelves.
The artisan breads do not keep well because they are made without preservatives. In Europe people buy their bread fresh that day, for consumption that night. Americans tend to buy for a week at a time.
One local baker talks of “transition breads,” loaves that are a softer, less exotic variety and perhaps more palatable for someone used to grabbing a few slices out of a plastic bag.
“Whenever someone comes in and buys several loaves, I always ask, ‘What are you going to do with all of that bread? ‘ ” says Larry Schanzer, co-owner of Napoleon Bakery & Cafe in Westport.
Schanzer tells of one customer who called distraught because she didn’t know what was wrong with her loaf of bread. She had placed it atop the refrigerator for five days and now it was as hard as a rock.
“I had to tell her, ‘Dear, you can’t keep our bread,’ ” he says. “Our bread is best consumed on the date purchased.”
Although it might be blasphemy to a European baker, many of the stores include a plastic bag with the loaves they sell; in case there is unused bread that must be frozen, most recommend doing so after two days.
But some bakers warn you can deviate only so far from the origins without spoiling what makes artisan breads unique in the first place.
“People need to understand that it is an art and a science to understand the dough and the long process to make these breads,” says Sara Welter, general manager of the Breadmaker Bakery Cafe in Fairway, which sells to the public and also supplies many area restaurants.
“Some days the cuts in the loaves are made just perfect and the bread is just beautiful,” Welter says. “It is really an art.”
Americans knead it So what is an artisan bread?
One local baker says that if you can squish a slice, crust and all, and roll it into a golf ball, it isn’t artisan.
Generally, artisan bread is handmade, not mass-produced by heavy machinery. Most have crusty tops, which come about in part because of how they are baked, without pans, usually in a hearth oven as opposed to a convection oven .
But even the Bakers Guild of America admits defining artisan can be difficult.
“The word artisan certainly does not apply exclusively to any one style of bread product, or to any one method of baking,” the Guild’s Web site says. “Rather, it has more to do with the individual baker.”
Ultimately, the guild settles on this definition: “…it is the work of a knowledgeable, skilled and conscientious baker who is attempting to make the best possible product.”
Which, the guild notes, leaves the definition up to the individual baker.
If time and loving care are the determinants, Tony Arni, lead baker at Dean & DeLuca, qualifies.
Arni and executive baker Pat Whitaker are the only two people at the Overland Park store who are allowed to handle the dough during some parts of the baking process. This is to ensure a consistent quality in the store’s dough.
The process is as scientific as it is artistic. Even the temperature of the flour can have a huge impact on the outcome of the bread.
Yet Arni speaks of the dough in familial terms.
He talks of the “mothers,” starter doughs kept in buckets. The starters contain natural bacteria that make it bubble and ferment.
The buckets are “fed” three times a day, adding more water and flour to keep the mixture active. “Babies” are pulled off, usually in 3-pound chunks to be shaped into loaves.
It is a long process. Some of the doughs must rest for up to five hours before being shaped and baked, Arni says. That means he, Whitaker and the other bakers often arrive at the store by 3 a.m. Baking at Dean & DeLuca, like most area bakeries, occurs in a stone hearth. The stones are 8-foot long, nearly tomblike slabs, Arni says. He uses a dusting of cornmeal for cushion between the bread and the hearth stone. Steam is injected into the four-deck oven , which helps form the hard crusts typical
A unique feature of the new Hen House oven is that it doesn’t depend on steam injection for its moisture. In de la Rosa’s oven , the steam comes primarily from the breads that are in the oven , says Farm to Market’s Leonard.
“The bread can expand more fully, so the complex crust flavors are deeper and the crust will set quickly,” Leonard says.
A light bulb is the oven ‘s only electrical part. The wood that fuels the oven is stoked through a metal grate. The entire oven weighs about 4 tons.
Instead of several decks of stone, de la Rosa’s oven has one giant hearth stone. It can be turned with one finger using a silver steering wheel outside the oven , similar to what you might find on a car. A door allows bakers to remove and place loaves as they finish.
The oven can hold up to 100 loaves at once. And each loaf will get individual care, Leonard says.
He is training the bakers in how to handle the dough. “There are things about dough that you can only tell by touching it,” he says.
“If it is too soft, sticky, warm.
“Handling dough is still a very human thing. A baker might even decide to wait a half an hour before shaping dough. A machine doesn’t have that capability.”
De la Rosa has returned to Spain now and is planning his retirement. After building the ovens for 42 years, he sees the business changing. There is more competition from other companies, many making more modern electric and gas ovens . De la Rosa insists his wood-burning type is supreme.
At one time the world had 20 master masons such as himself, specializing in building the ovens for the J. Llopis Co. of Barcelona. After he retires, there will be four.
“I’ve helped a lot of people make a lot of good bread,” he says. “But there is more competition now. Some of the new hearth ovens don’t need bricks .”
‘The Starbucks of bread’ That Europe is turning toward more American methods of mass production is an irony many bakers note. Especially now that the Old World ways of baking bread are gaining popularity here.
America won a few more bragging rights for its bread in February when a three-man United States team won the 1999 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, the World Cup of Baking.
France took second in the Paris competition.
“That the American team could win the gold medal, that is an indication of where bread is going in this country,” Leonard says.
Another measure is the way America is selling artisan breads, trying many avenues to introduce it to new customers. Farm to Market sells its products in about 30 area groceries. In Europe, the lone bakery, not a giant grocery, is still the standard.
An American spin to the trend of artisan breads is franchising.
Breadsmith opened in November 1997. The Brookside store is part of a franchise that began in Milwaukee in 1993. There are now 55 Breadsmith stores.
“Our goal would be to be the Starbucks of bread,” says founder Dan Sterling.
Chris Akers, co-owner of the local Breadsmith, didn’t come from a culinary background. He spent three weeks training in Milwaukee first. Then, a company trainer came to Kansas City for 10 days when the store first opened.
“It’s not rocket science,” Sterling says. “We have really simplified the techniques.”
A former architect, Akers found the art of bread baking appealing. “Like architecture, there is a sense of craft with bread baking,” he says.
Napoleon, perhaps the Kansas City area’s grandfather store in artisan baking, welcomes the competition. “Anytime anybody opens up a competitive market, it brings the awareness of that product up,” Schanzer says.
Napoleon is in its 16th year of business, first operating at an Overland Park location and now in Westport. Schanzer says that although his wares sell well, it is hard to make a living selling bread for $1.50 to $3.50 a loaf.
And it is not an easy business to enter. Imported hearth ovens cost about $75,000.
Most bakeries depend on deli and catering business as well, even Napoleon. “We have to do lunch, and we have to have the pastries as well,” Schanzer says.
Several area bakers predict the artisan bread trend will grow for at least 10 more years. And, for now, Napoleon and the other bakers in town are welcoming the popularity of artisan bread.
“This invigorating growth and interest in the bread makes more people aware of it,” Schanzer says. “And over time that makes them eventually want more of it.”