When Paul Markowitz, 64, decided last year to retire and create a sourdough micro-bakery in his Pearl Street home in Montpelier, he thought he would simply apply his knowledge from 40 years of amateur bread making. He bridled when his son suggested he watch a video on how to improve the process. “I don’t need anyone to tell me how to make bread!” Markowitz said he told his son, raising his voice to dramatize how he protested. “I’m a bread maker!”
Now Markowitz is more humble about his knowledge. “The amount I know about bread making is tiny,” he said. “The bread will do something, and I wonder, ‘Why did it do that?’ I don’t know.” But he has mastered a process that sells out his inventory each week and keeps customers coming back.
Markowitz bakes a couple dozen loaves of sourdough whole wheat and rye bread each Thursday morning in his kitchen. The ingredients are simple: organic wheat or rye, water, salt, and yeast. The process is more elaborate. On Tuesday, he mixes his personal sourdough starter—the source of yeast—with flour and water to start a sponge. It rises overnight, and he adds more flour and water Wednesday, letting the dough rise throughout the day. At the end of the day, he shapes the dough into loaves and puts them into a refrigerator, where they stay until he’s ready to pop them into the oven.
Into two ovens, actually. Each two-and-a-half-pound loaf is baked in its own cast-iron Dutch oven. “Ideally I’d have a brick or stone oven with a lot of thermal mass,” he explained. “With the Dutch ovens, I can recreate those conditions in an ordinary kitchen electric oven. I bake them 20 minutes with the lids on and then remove the lids and lower the temperature.”
With room in the oven for eight loaves at a time, it takes three rounds of baking to turn out his weekly quota of 24 loaves. Late in the afternoon, customers come by to pick up the loaves they’ve ordered.
The sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water with yeast that settled out of the air in Hinesburg into warm milk in 1981. “I left the milk out overnight,” Markowitz said, “and then added some flour the next day and stirred it up. Three days later, I had starter.” He’s been using it ever since, feeding the yeast regularly with more flour and removing some of the starter to bake with.
Before going commercial, Markowitz said, he spent three or four months tweaking his recipe. Many of the changes were to offer customers a consistent product. “I never used to measure. A few years ago I started measuring the ratio of flour to salt. Now it’s down to the gram.” He continues with minor tweaks, adding more caraway to the rye bread in response to customer input, and he’s considering adding rosemary-garlic loaves to the mix.
A friend’s daughter, five-and-a-half-year-old Aquilla, spends Thursdays with Markowitz as he bakes and sells the bread. He said she wouldn’t eat bread earlier in her life, as it caused her digestive problems. But on a recent Thursday, she ate slice after slice of Markowitz’s fresh-baked sourdough bread and said she feels fine after eating it. Markowitz said many people with problems eating bread report they can eat sourdough without problems. Other bakers say that any bread made with the long leavening process Markowitz uses is easier to digest, even if it starts with dry yeast.
The taste seems to be the primary reason people trek to the Meadows on dark, late-winter afternoons for a $7 loaf. One customer sighed delightedly over a sample slice and exclaimed, “I want to retire and bake bread with you!” Another customer, Paul Eley, said he’d been buying regularly since the business opened in August. He was picking up a loaf for his family in East Montpelier and one to take to his in-laws in Glover. “It’s really good bread,” he said. “It’s a great value, and I love the density of it. It’s easy to spread things on.”
As of December, Markowitz said, he was selling out each week. He’ll also give away sourdough starter and his recipe. “Spread the bread,” he said.
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