For decades, the Hudson Valley has been a breadbasket for New York. Back in the 1970's and 80's—when the artisan back-to-the-bakery movement was at its peak—idealistic young bakers fled the city determined to hone their craft in a less stressful environment that was closer to the soil. They founded bakeries like Bread Alone and Our Daily Bread, which today are institutions that sell thousands of loaves a day across the region. One of the first, however, was Rock Hill Bakehouse, which only retains a tiny foothold in the city, at a Saturdays-only stand in the Union Square Greenmarket.
Michael and Wendy London founded Rock Hill Bakehouse in 1985. They began their baking careers in Manhattan, working at places like Éclair Pastries, William Greenberg Desserts, and the Ananda East health food store before escaping Upstate. After running a Saratoga Springs patisserie for a few years, they decided to concentrate on breads, baking Eastern European pumpernickels, sourdoughs, and other loaves in their farmhouse kitchen. These caught the attention of chefs at white tablecloth restaurants like Aureole, and soon trucks were hauling loaves four hours down to Manhattan. In the early 1990s, the Londons sold controlling interest in Rock Hill to Matt Funicello, who has kept the original recipes but expanded distribution throughout Upstate New York and neighboring Vermont and Massachusetts.
Like Bread Alone and Our Daily Bread, Rock Hill is a large-scale artisan bakery. Its bakers use high quality, often organic flours, natural leavens, and no preservatives or other additives to extend shelf life. However, their loaves still have to retain their freshness on the journey from the bakery to the supermarket or farmer's market. Consequently they generally have a fairly dense crumb and high moisture content. These requirements are a perfect match for loaves like Rock Hill's Jewish rye ($6), which is a paragon of the genre. It's made from wheat and rye flours, ground caraway seeds, salt, and yeast. A slice is more than dense enough to stand up to the juiciest pile of pastrami, with a rich caraway flavor and pleasant chewiness.
Another of my Rock Hill favorites is the bakery's farm loaf ($5), which seems to carry a whiff of Upstate hayfields. It's made from wheat flour, stone-ground organic wheat flour, salt, and natural leavening. Using these leavens can work both ways: Sometimes they impart the aroma of fresh-cut grass. However, if the leaven has turned, the bread can reek of the stall at the back of the barn that needs to be shoveled. The farm bread is the former. I just wish the bakers allowed the crumb's hole structure to develop so that the texture would match the delicious flavor
The sourdough loaf ($5) is one of the first made by Rock Hill, with a recipe of just flour, water, salt, and sourdough starter that was imparted to the Londons by an old-time San Francisco baker. It's a big boule with a golden crust and fairly dense crumb with a well-balanced sourdough tang. Unfortunately, like almost all Rock Hill loaves sold at Union Square, it was shipped to the market in a plastic bag, ensuring a moist loaf but also softening the crust.
I'm a sucker for chocolate breads, but Rock Hill takes the genre to—almost—its logical conclusion. Its chocolate cherry loaf ($6) seems to have almost as much chocolate as bread dough. This is a small but weighty boule made with cocoa powder, cherries, and a very generous portion of chocolate chips added to the dough. A thin slice, well toasted, is more than enough to start the day.