Wet Hillside, Hot Oven, Great Bread!
by Shawn Erin
Excuse me if I get a little whimsical, but it is the best way to describe this story. While there are no little gnomes scuttling down from the mountains in the night to bake bread, imagine the mountains themselves taking a hand in the baking. If environment in which one bakes affects a loaf, then you may be able to taste fresh air in Preston Hill Bakery goods.
Once upon a time, there was an architect. He built no great skyscrapers but he provided for his wife and family. This architect had a dream. And so, one fine day he quit his job of 20 years to become an apprentice in Seattle. He spent five years learning to bake a simple loaf of bread.
"I was interested in building a simple, primitive loaf," Alex Williams, the protagonist of our story, explained.
Armed with recipes, techniques, and on a shoestring, Williams set out to build his own bakery. Near the end of a fantastically steep one-lane, up from a narrow creek – gushing Cascade valley, in a forest glade on a small area of level ground (rare on these hillsides, and yes, gnomes come to mind), Williams put up a modest 200 square foot, one-room building. A few yards from this prep-room for mixing and kneading, Williams fit a wood fire French bread oven made from a kit into a homemade concrete hearth and put a roof over it. The bakery has grown, in increments, to now include 300 more square feet, three rooms, and a 60-year-old pizza oven used to finish off small loaves while others get their first turn outdoors.
What certainly rings as whimsy was also hard work. It was important for Williams to never grow beyond his means, so he saved up for every improvement. He bakes every loaf he sells. He averages sales of 200 loaves at both the University Market in Seattle on Saturdays all year round and the Carnation Market on Wednesdays in the summer.
Baking starts early in the morning on Fridays and Tuesdays. Loaves made with ancient grains go into the oven first, as they require less rising time as sourdoughs. Williams does some mixing and takes a break, rolls some loaves and takes a break, puts some in the oven and takes a break.
It’s a rhythm that fits his demeanor – calm, thoughtful.
"The process is fun, you don't have to spend all your time doing it. I mix a little starter and then let it sit...sort of guiding it along its process," Williams said.
His processes can take up to two days. "Sometimes bread gets tastier over time. Especially with a sourdough... if you do it over two days it's the slow taste that gives it a deeper flavor," he explained.
He uses different baking techniques for his bread to honor the grain and bring out the taste, in pursuit of the perfectly simple loaf.
Many of these techniques are self-taught. Since his time as an apprentice, new trends have popped up, and Williams and his customers are at the forefront.
"It's a balance between what people want and showing them what to expect in a bread. It's a bread dialogue. Balancing your imagination and choosing how the bread's going to taste, and make sure the people enjoy it, too," he shared.
The newest addition to Williams’ repertoire has been his line of ancient grain loaves.
"I didn't know anything about ancient grains until I started buying them. It was the next step in discovering new things and more nutritious things," in his quest. "People have become more aware of the quality of grains they eat and a lot of them are learning of the value of the ancient grains."
Williams has seen consumer awareness grow alongside the boom of farmer's markets in the last 10 years. He believes this growth has also fueled more high-quality food production, as well. "The joy of the farmer's market is you can bring high quality to the people and the rent is reasonable," he joked.
Williams' market plethora always includes a sourdough and a leavened loaf, and a mixture of flatbreads, chocolate bread, "regular crusty bread," scones, and ancient grain loaves that may include einkorn, emmer and or spelt.
About 10 percent of his loaves are made with ancient grain.
"First-time buyers like the taste or like the idea of, “Oh, that's different," Williams said of his customers. "It's denser than the usual bread... but if you can hook them on taste that's a good thing."
His favorite is the einkorn, he said it tastes creamier than the more common spelt grain.
Williams’ plan is to live happily ever after, living with his wife and golden retriever in the foot hills, selling high quality loaves made of high quality grains to his family of customers. Would he do it all again? Of course. Although, maybe 20 years earlier next time.
Photos Courtesy of Preston Hill Bakery
©2015 Lentz Spelt Farms