- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

OLEY, Pa. (AP) - They call Tom Kopel “The Oley Baker.”

In true Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, he began baking because he happened across a bargain: two three-quarter-sized ovens perfect for making artisanal bread.

He installed them on the back porch of his house, and expanded from there.

Kopel learned baking from an old-timer who taught him on an outdoor wood-fired oven. Now, he’s a state licensed and inspected home bakery producing about 250 loaves a week on five gas-fired steel Blodgett stoves.

“This little bakery thing has taken over the first floor,” he said, laughing. “I break a sweat every day. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s a brutal damn job.”

Kopel is part of growing niche in the foodie world: artisanal bakers. He bakes several types of bread, including sourdough, dark rye, sesame-flax and whole wheat.

In common with other artisanal bakers, Kopel doesn’t add any preservatives or other additives. In consideration of his neighbors, his loaves can’t be bought at his residence. He’s strictly wholesale, and delivers everything to his client outlets. Weaver’s Orchard in Morgantown is his biggest client in Berks County.

Mike and Barbara Dietrich, who own Oley Valley Organics in Pikeville, use an old, enclosed wood-fired oven to bake their bread. But they do it on an informal schedule, baking a few loaves to sell, a few for friends and a few as educational demonstrations of the craft.

Old, maybe even historic, ovens like the Dietrichs’, may outnumber the new ones. Take a drive though the Oley Valley and note the number of historic properties that feature an outbuilding with a chimney - an almost sure sign of an oven or a summer kitchen. Most summer kitchens were centered on an oven. Later, wood- and coal-fired cook stoves were sometimes added, depending on space.

“If you want truly fresh bread, an artisan-baked loaf is the way to go,” said Abe Faber, co-owner of Clear Flour Bakery, Brookline, Mass., and former board member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America.

The guild has experienced a growth spurt in the last five years, swelling to 1,700 members. Its goal is to build a network for microbakers by conducting an annual three-day gathering in Chicago called Wheatstalk and offering seminars and a chance for bakers to link up with suppliers and other artisans.

Interest in home baking and artisan baking has been propelled partly by the interest in at-home entertainment, specifically the proliferation of hardscaped patios, some with elaborate outdoor kitchens built around a wood-fired oven.

Owners soon learn they have a valuable culinary resource: residual heat. Ovens fired to 700 to 900 degrees for pizza may remain warm and useful for other purposes for up to two days. With a little advance planning, oven owners can bake bread the old-fashioned way, as well as roast meals and entrees. For many backyard oven owners, the holy grail is roasting the Thanksgiving turkey and all the fixings, something that sounds more challenging than it actually is.

Some bakers start as hobbyists and learn their loaves are an in-demand item, and that their oven built for home use can’t keep up with the demand.

Bread baked in a wood stove is cooked using residual heat, not the flames of the fire. The fire’s heat is transferred to the bricks lining the stove and radiated back to the bread.

The definition of an artisanal baker is somewhat fluid. Many, like Kopel, don’t use wood-fired ovens, and a baker may make a few loaves for friends and family, or hundreds a week distributed via small food markets and farm markets. There is even a niche for bakers working with ancient grains such as spelt, and gluten-free options have proliferated, despite the relatively small number of gluten-sensitive consumers.

Elizabeth Stoudt began baking at home when she was about 21. Her Wonderful Good Market, a microbakery, is part of the Stoudt Brewery complex in Adamstown. Her parents, Ed and Carol Stoudt, are the founders of the Black Angus brewpub.

There is a long-standing relationship between the baker and the brewer, as both work with yeast. Kopel says brewers and bakers are historical brothers, sharing yeast back and forth.

Elizabeth Stoudt agrees. Fermentation is in her blood, she said. She also makes cheese. For the bread, however, she uses a wild yeast culture from France that was passed down to her father by the person who taught him how to bake. Her Stoudt’s bakery bakes about 1,000 loaves a week.

One big difference between artisanal bread and its mass-produced cousins is shelf life. This stuff doesn’t have preservatives. It’s made to tear into the same day or the next, not to give you your lunchtime sandwiches for the week.

Given the multiple appeals of its handcrafted appearance, aroma, freshness and taste, longevity isn’t a problem.

“People like artisan bread because it is good to eat, and the fact that it can also be good for you is secondary in many cases,” Faber said.





Information from: Reading Eagle, https://www.readingeagle.com/

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide