Loaves of white bread are entering and leaving the oven on a long wooden paddle. Rounded boules cooling, rich with chunks of dark Belgian chocolate — and ciabatta, seven grain bread, potato and onion, rolls made with dried fruit and pecans, and a flattish loaf made entirely with rye flour.
These rye loaves are rare, says Richard Bourdon, and they cannot be made with commercial yeast — but none of the bread on his cooling racks relies on commercial yeast. He has been making traditional sourdough breads, with only the yeasts in the air of his Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, since 1985.
Yeast bread as a craft is only about 200 years old, Bourdon said, and bakers through history have done without it. All it takes to make a good loaf of bread is water, flour, salt and a little time. Traditional sourdough has been made this way for thousands of years.
And he has been baking his own for more than 40 years, in an old low brick warehouse that once belonged to the Rising Paper Mill with its towers and courtyards, on the banks of the Housatonic River.
His breads travel up and down the county now — in restaurants, co-ops and farmers markets — and as far as Florida and California by mail — or you can come in and watch his kitchen at work.
He has opened a counter at the bakery, so people can come to the bakery. On sunny days, they can take a pastry and a cup to tea down to the water. And on raw, rainy mornings, they can find a hot cup of coffee and a croissant or a moslasses cookie.
He mixes his doughs with flour, water and salt, and nothing else, he said. He adds no sweeteners, no fats, no preservatives or conditioners. He uses organic ingredients whenever possible, and he grinds his own whole grain flours fresh, daily, at the bakery: rye, wheat, spelt, oats.
The flour mill is wooden, with grindstones spinning at 110 rpm. Bourdon compared freshly ground whole wheat flour and a softer, lighter spelt flour.
He uses natural yeast for health, he explained, as well as flavor. Commercial yeast does not ferment grain in a way that makes it more digestible.
“You can make a new sourdough starter any day,” he said “… it keeps growing, like yogurt. Sourdough uses the same lactobacilli that live in us to break down food. Digestion is a fermentation process — You are what you digest.”
An acid in whole grains, phytic acid, forms an undividable compound with minerals, and phytic acid can only broken down in an acidic process.
‘You can make a new sourdough starter any day … it keeps growing, like yogurt.’ — Richard Bourson
“If you don’t do that, it will keep you from absorbing minerals” Bourdon said. “It depletes you of minerals. It is essential to ferment grains first. Indigenous people knew that.”
Phytic acid is not broken down through the fermentation of commercial yeast, he said. Today, whole grains have had a revival, but people often forget that piece of nutritional fact.
Bourdon mixes his dough in vats easily four feet across. Doughs rest and rise in plastic tubs, and are cut into sections by machine. They are proofed and shaped by hand though, because to make a good-quality bread, Bourdon makes a softer, stickier dough. Machines cannot handle it, he said.
Industry has cut water out to make the dough easier to handle, but having the right amount of water is essential: it helps in the gelling of starches in the bread.
Sourdough bread also rises more slowly than dough leavened with commercial yeast. A sourdough loaf takes about six hours to make, from the time the starter is ready, Bourdon said. The starter takes about eight hours to prepare. He mixes the dough, divides it and lets it rest two-and-a-half hours. Then he rounds and shapes it and lets it rest another two-and-a-half hours in a warmed, steam moistened room.
Then the loaves bake for 45 minutes in a French oven, a gas-fired deck oven with stone floors. It heats with indirect flame, he said: the heat travels through pipes, like a giant hot water radiator.
Sourdough cultures in different bakeries will taste slightly different, he said — often from the way different bakeries prepare them — but sourdoughs from any one bakery will taste the same.
He introduced the bakers who were tworking in the kitchen then. Carlos Hernandez had come to the Berkshires from Salvador, and Byron and Washington Rosales from Ecuador, and they spoke with Bourdon in Spanish and English, as Byron said he had recently gone home to visit and realized how much better he liked Berkshire Mountain bread.
Bourdon himself is French Canadian, and he moved to the Berkshires from Europe, where he had gone to pursue a musical career and stayed to pursue food-making. Even at 22, he had a calling, he said. He traveled through France, Germany, and Switzerland and stopped at every bakery he could find, asking, “What’s the best bread? What is this bread? What is bread?”
He came to the Berkshires first because he was invited to teach at a bakery in the Berkshires, and he started off here at full speed. The first few years he spent here, he tried to bake 12,000 loaves a week. But it became clear to him that bigger did not equal better, he said, and he felt the quality of his breads was sinking, so he cut back.
He now bakes about 3,000 loaves a week — and his work has more integrity, he said; he also has more of a life. In fact, he is taking up music again.
“I don’t have any big, glorious plans,” he said — “just to go on baking bread.”