"The bread takes on a life of its own; feeding, nurturing and satisfying people, each in their own way."
There you are, driving for miles through silent fields of corn and hay punctuated only by the occasional barn or silo. Sometimes you see the dawn reflected in the water of a rushing creek as you cross a tiny green-painted truss bridge. The spirit of rural America fills your car.
This isn't Iowa, it's New Jersey, and it's the sort of scenery you'd see if you were going to visit the Bake House, the state's finest baker of whole grain Artisan breads.
You can't visit Bake House though—at least not to buy bread—it's only sold through local health food stores or at the Bernardsville farmers' market, where a hundred or more loaves get sold in a couple of hours. That's enough to keep owner Kathy Hester more than busy.
Kathy started Bake House so that she could "have a semi-normal life." And if her idea of "semi-normal" includes starting work at four in the morning and chopping firewood herself with an axe, Kathy has achieved her goal.
What isn't "semi-normal" is the astounding quality of Kathy´s bread; I mean, it tastes like bread, not yeast, not smoke, but bread. And not commercial bread, but a transcendent bread flavor that leaves you asking what other bread taste like and why.
So, why? First of all, there's that Alan Scott wood burning oven. It's the ultimate and there's only one other bakery in the state that's using one. (Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse, profiled in my book Farms and Foods of the Garden State). Then there are her amazing recipes; all organic and without oil or soy, all with minimal kneading, her temperature controlled retarding room where the dough is fermented for twenty to twenty-six hours, and finally, her leavening—completely local and non-industrial. It started with potato skins and is fed by Kathy on a regular basis.
Kathy comes from El Paso, Texas, and has relatives in New Mexico. This explains the culture clash we suffered when talking about her home; huge and deeply rural to a Northeastern suburbanite like myself but suburban and almost, but not quite, urban to a Southwesterner. Still, her current life in New Jersey is absolutely alien to most of us. Living in farm country with her mom and husband (a furniture maker), chopping wood for her oven and delivering her bread to small-town shops or selling it in local farmers' markets. The nearest mall, pharmaceutical company, or six-lane traffic jam seems awfully far away.
Bread appealed to Kathy from early on. A Parsons grad who loved sculpture (and worked as a textbook designer in her previous career), she started in the food business as a line cook. Soon she had her own catering company and still has a commercial kitchen in her home. Baking was the next step. That oven was built in the old horse barn behind the house by her husband and soon she was in business.
Self-taught and proud of it, Kathy says, "You really don't gain any understanding until you do it. I learn something from every loaf." The bread is a structure that dictates her time at home and helps her plan ahead. Feeding the leavening, mixing the dough, timing the rise, firing the oven, baking, bagging it up, and finally delivering to stores or selling at the market. Something happens after that though.
The bread takes on a life of its own; feeding, nurturing and satisfying people, each in their own way. For some, it's their chance to eat bread despite being sensitive to commercial yeast. For others, the satisfaction of switching from a mass-produced to a local and artisan product, and finally there have to be those like myself, for whom sheer deliciousness is motivation enough.
Shops Selling Bake House Bread
28 Main Street, Blairstown NJ 07825 (map)
Orders taken by phone. Bread delivered on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays by 10 a.m.
The Health Shoppe
At the Chester Springs/ShopRite Shopping Center
Rt. 206 in Chester, New Jersey
Orders taken. Ask for Robyn or Marley. Bread delivered on Thursdays.
Bernardsville Farmers' Market (seasonal)
Route 202 and Clairmont Road at the NJ Transit Station, Bernardsville
Saturday in season 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.