Photo Courtesy The Loaf
The Summer of Bread
It’s almost nine o’clock in the morning, and the yeasty smell of bread baking floats out over the river Urumea, which cuts through the center of San Sebastián, Spain. It’s not an atypical European panorama–baguettes tucked under arms and the smell of a bakery around every corner. Until, that is, you reach the source of the smell.
Five heavy-duty shipping containers sit in what was once a sad, gravelly plaza in front of the main train station of the city. In this small space, before occupied solely by napping backpackers and a gang of beggars gathered around a concrete fountain, these gray metal containers are now pumping out over 500 loaves of artisan sourdough bread daily. There’s one catch: after three months, the heavy metal doors of this pop-up bakery were shuttered on September 30 and San Sebastián went back to normal.
In a country where buying your daily bread is a ritual for everyone from college students to retirees, the absence of artisan bread is pretty shocking. In San Sebastián itself, before The Loaf, there was truly only one other baker making bread that tastes like bread, bread that doesn’t have to be sold fresh out of the oven to be edible. Bread consumption is still high, but surprisingly a good loaf is nearly nonexistent. This can be attributed to the industrialization of the Spanish bread industry in the 20th century, which placed profit over pan. However, in Biarritz, France, a mere twenty-five miles away, artisan loaves are still common.
This lamentable state of things was unacceptable to a certain trio of bon vivants. Andoni Munduate, Xabier de la Maza, and Nacho Bueno met at college, and soon thereafter formed The Glutton Club, a group devoted to living the gastronomic good life. From that was born their marketing consulting firm, DeliFunArt, and then another, La Salsera. After translating and publishing The Handmade Loaf by Australian master baker Dan Lepard, they spotted a hole in the marketplace. So they flew Dan over, got him an apartment overlooking San Sebastián’s famous Concha bay, and put him to work.
Dan Lepard, an accomplished baker, author, and columnist for The Guardian, brought to The Loaf his passion for real bread, bread that tastes of yeast and fermentation, bread that our forefathers might recognize. With Dan’s passion and taste buds leading the way, flour was sourced not from an industrial plant or France, but from mills in Cataluña and Navarra. The bakery opened its doors on July 1, with two loaves on offer, the Classic (70% sourdough) and the Extreme (100% sourdough). They sold out as quickly as the line of awaiting Basques could be served.
Since that first week, hectic and with production of bread increasing daily, the bakers (which include chefs that moonlight at three-Michelin-star restaurant Martín Berasategui) have gone on to experiment with flavored breads (honey and beer), a superb pan de molde (sandwich bread), and baked goods as well. Baking classes are also given on a weekly basis.
Lepard and the team at The Loaf have faced challenges: health inspections that severely restricted what the bakery could offer in the way of food and drink, and stifling heat (natural in August in a twenty by twenty foot space) that not only makes work unpleasant but interferes with fermentation. But Lepard views them as a sort of innovating force. “You have to flip every challenge life throws at you, otherwise you go down,” says Lepard. “That single thought carried us through some of the trickiest moments I’ve ever faced baking, and helped us bake better than I ever thought possible.”
When the baking-off happens, it’s impressive to watch. Sourdough loaves are pulled out of the retarder proofer, where they are nestled between soft white cloth. Baker’s assistants and Lepard, who works every day at the bakery, gently but swiftly lift the unbaked loaves and place them on the peel, tap them back into shape, and swipe a blade, or lame, across the top, shoving them six by six into the three-tier bread oven. It’s so fast that if you blink you miss it. The loaves get occasional steam treatments during the first 15 minutes, and as they finish baking the oven door is left open so they can form their gorgeous crust.
Once the loaves are pulled out with the same military-like efficiency, they are sold to awaiting customers. Lepard is often there, telling the eighty-year-old woman why it will taste different from bread she is accustomed to, and convincing the tattooed hipster that the Extreme loaf is actually better the next day. It’s obvious that Lepard is part of what has made this project a success: he refuses to don the pretension of some bakers, preferring to use layman’s terms and share his knowledge with anyone who is hungry for it.
The future of The Loaf is uncertain–it may be reincarnated as a bricks-and-mortar bakery or go on a glutenous (or gluttonous?) tour. What is certain is that the summer of 2012 will go down in the city’s gastronomic history as the Summer of Bread, and the inhabitants of San Sebastián have a new-found appreciation for the flavor of real bread that’s going to be hard to satiate.
Get baking and stock up on these great books: