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Vermont Bakeries Have Sweet Smell of Success

November 04, 1990|ANDREW NEMETHY | Nemethy is an Adamant, Vt. , free-lance writer.

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — In this age of prefab, prepackaged, micro-instant-on-the-table food, Jeffrey Hamelman stands out like a fresh Danish amid a shelf full of Twinkies.

He is a culinary dinosaur, a man who still believes the old ways are better, short cuts are bad and anything worth doing is worth doing right.

What Hamelman does right--and arguably as well as anyone in the entire state of Vermont--is bake.

From his small storefront shop on Elliot Street in the southern Vermont town of Brattleboro, his ovens produce tart sourdoughs and French breads, ryes and pumpernickels, sweet rolls, pastries and sumptuous cakes.

The flavor of his daily breads and pastries is all the advertising he needs. In his small, warm shop, heady with the aroma of yeast, the flow of customers and salutations never lulls.

Vermont has long been known for its skiing, fall foliage and summer greenery. To this you can now add the title, Vermont: The Bread State.

While the state has a long bread-making tradition, until recently that tradition was tied to the home with roots in the farm life style, where canning and putting by were bywords.

The best breads were to be found at grandma's or at church suppers. But the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and 1970s brought a new emphasis on whole-grain, home-grown products, spurring a revival of the baker's craft.

Today, Vermont bakers have mixed those themes of old-fashioned quality and natural goodness and fashioned a new tradition that can be as rewarding for tourists as it is to the local people.

Traveling in search of great bakeries is rarely more pleasant than in a state like Vermont, where the pleasure of discovering a great bread or sticky bun in the middle of nowhere is joined by New England landscapes of mountains and lakes. The only drawback may be that your waistline can loom as large as the hills.

Among the treasures at the southern end of the state, Brattleboro contains the bakery run by Hamelman.

"When you hold a loaf of bread in your hands, I think you hold a resolution," says Hamelman, who has a handsome, square face and blond hair that curls up at the collar.

Hamelman opened up his Brattleboro shop seven years ago, and has become not only an institution in the Brattleboro community, but a symbol of the kind of quality one expects in Vermont food products.

He makes a dozen different breads daily, changing the variety each day of the week.

He has five bakers working with him, but still keeps his hands on the critical phases of mixing and proofing the dough, which can be affected by a wide range of things, from the ingredients themselves--the characteristics of a batch of flour--to the humidity, temperature and time the dough is allowed to rise.

Hamelman comes in along with everyone else at 5 a.m because he likes the idea of working as a group to produce the day's offerings. He also wants his people to interact with the customers.

As they parade in and out of the store, sitting down to have a pastry and coffee, buying a loaf or two from the shelf, Hamelman exchanges greetings with many of them.

The idea of doing the baking separate from his shop--removed from the community, simply "manufacturing" a product--is anathema to Hamelman. This is all part of what he sees as the "ethic" of baking.

"In making bread, you're taking part in a microcosm of centuries," Hamelman said. "There's a time-honored integrity to the trade."

He immerses himself six days a week in the daily chores of making dough and baking. It is tedious work, but his holistic view of what he does keeps him fresh, and guides his approach to baking.

He uses no artificial ingredients, and uses a lot of labor-intensive, old-fashioned methods. He has an antiquated 40-year-old oven that holds in steam, giving breads a shiny crust and baking far better than newer ovens, he believes.

For the proper rising of his French bread dough, Hamelman uses antiquated linen racks that allow the dough to breathe and add to its flavor. He proofs other doughs in wicker bowls from Europe.

Guiding a visitor through the crowded, amiable chaos of the bakery, Hamelman tells the story about a bakery equipment salesman who dropped in one day and looked around the shop. He could see the salesman's reaction in his eyes: "What kind of oddity is this place . . . you might as well go into a museum."

Though Hamelman takes considerable pains not to criticize other bakers, he says many modern store breads and bakeries show no respect for the baking tradition.

The loaves and pastries they sell, he explains, are made with machines and are filled with stabilizers, preservatives and other additives to make them easy to manufacture and last on the shelf. The inevitable casualty, he insists, is quality and flavor.

He also has little good to say about the chains that advertise their breads as "fresh-baked." The truth, he points out, is that the dough is frozen, prepackaged and manufactured with additives.

"You wouldn't dream of making a garden salad and eating it a week later. Bread has got to be consumed fresh," Hamelman insists.

This is not mere talk on his part. He donates all his day-old bread to local soup kitchens and food banks. He has also refused to raise his prices on breads in the seven years he's been baking.

"It's really important to me that bread is available," Hamelman says. "We've never once raised the price, and I have no intention to."

Hamelman relies on specialty items such as cakes and baked sweets to provide his profit. Bread for him is the staff of life, the one thing no one should go without.

"I look at this as my form of public service," he says.

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