Farmer's market season is a while off, but last Friday morning the ovens at Good Companion Bakery in Vergennes were up and running.
This time of the year Erik Andrus only bakes once a week on Fridays, to meet the needs of the bakery's winter CSA (or community-supported agriculture) subscribers. Even though he only makes about 40 loaves per week — one batch in the industrial-sized brick oven — he still bakes a large variety of breads. On this particular Friday, it was pain au levain, a type of sourdough, multigrain, baguettes and the weekly special, apple bread.
"I've been baking bread my whole life," said Andrus.
Erik Andrus cleans the bread oven.
But until he and his wife, Erica, built the bakery on their farm in 2007, he had never baked commercially. He built the brick oven in three weeks with a friend, using plans designed by Alan Scott. After a crash course in commercial baking at King Arthur Flour, he threw himself into perfecting his brand of artisan loaves.
He quickly found that commercial baking is very different from baking a loaf or two in your oven.
"You can make (bread) in your kitchen, and when it comes out great you're happy, and if not you eat it anyway," he said. "But when you're baking for paying customers you've got to have a professional quality result every time."
Even after the course, it took time to get the strategy down. He estimates that it took him about a year to perfect the baking process.
Three years later, you'd never guess that he had struggled. While the bread rose, he flew through the room rolling out pastry doughs, filling pies and rolling bars of chocolate into buttery croissant dough, all the while telling the legend of the origins of the croissant.
The croissants, all ready for baking
Then, once the pastries were stowed away in the smaller conventional oven, Andrus sliced the bread doughs into loaf-sized pieces and slapped the pieces onto the scale. A few required adjustment, but most passed muster and went onto a board to rise.
"Everything is weighed," he said. "Weight never lies. And it makes it very easy to scale batches up and down, so I can make the same kind of bread if I'm making seven loaves or 100."
The dough for the apple bread is particularly wet
In the summer, Andrus makes about 100 loaves for each farmer's market he goes to, and is baking two to four times a week. This time of the year is much slower, since all of the bread goes to his CSA subscribers.
CSA stands for community supported agriculture, and subscribers usually pay up front and get a certain amount of food — vegetables are common, and there are some meat CSAs in the area as well — each week for the duration of the season.
The Good Companion Bakery CSA is a little different. It runs year round, and uses a flexible online system that Andrus and one of his subscribers developed. Each subscriber pays for a certain number of credits, and each credit can be redeemed for bread, croissants or a dessert. The dessert and the bread special rotate on a weekly basis, and he always offers pain au levain, baguettes and multigrain bread.
Andrus built a belt that allows him to slide many loaves into the oven at the same time.
The online system makes organizing the baking process much easier. But it doesn't disguise the age-old process of kneading the bread, letting the yeast do its work, and watching the brown, hardened crust form over the bread. The history of that process, and that of the actual growing of the wheat, is what drew Andrus to bread baking in the first place.
The bakery is built around understanding that history and bringing back the small scale and sustainable practices of those processes.
"We're trying to create a product from local ingredients and not use energy prodigally and wastefully in the process," he said. "And we're trying to have not just the food but the knowledge base to make that food, from seed to loaf.
The finished product