Artisan bread is just that — artistic. It has its “artistry” baked in, much like an oak table that is painstakingly pieced together by its maker, cut, polished and filled with pride. Like that table, artisan bread is hand-crafted, produced either one at a time or in small batches, with no two alike. These loaves claim a historic past that goes back to our country’s very beginnings, when women mixed and kneaded basic ingredients such as yeast, flour, water and salt.
Artisan bread’s popularity waned when commercial bakeries came out with sweet, soft white bread. By the 1950s, Wonder Bread had become the sandwich maker of choice, and busy families could plop the colorfully wrapped loaf into their shopping carts. No more kneading or mixing, and who wanted to put up with that mess anyway? Wonder Bread exemplified life back then. Easy, laid back. There was an innocence about the bread, a naïveté that seemed to reflect us as a nation.
Now we’re getting back to our roots, as artisan bread is making a comeback. Nutrition, health and well-being are the buzz words, and good old-fashioned whole-grain breads are part of that vocabulary. According to Sandi Smith, owner with husband Tom of Sandi’s Breads, with locations at the Farmstead Farmers Market in Palmyra and Stauffer’s of Kissel Hill in Mechanicsburg, it’s the freshly milled wheat and natural ingredients, along with all that special attention, that separate their artisan bread from those on grocers’ shelves.
“The wheat we use is certified chemical-free,” Smith says. “The freshly milled flour goes from the mill into the mixer bowl, leaving little time for nutrient breakdown. People are looking to do good things for their bodies.”
Smith started baking her own breads because she wanted to offer something both delicious and healthy for the couple’s children. She started Sandi’s Breads in her home kitchen in 2001 after a request from a local farmers’ market to provide some baked goods for sale. Starting with a single variety of whole-wheat bread, Smith had so much fun interacting with the customers that day that she decided to become a regular presence at the market. Over the next three years, Smith added four more bread varieties along with her trademarked Grab-A-Nola Bars. As the breads rose and expanded, so did the business. She began developing new and original loaves after customers requested more “stuff” in the bread or “something to crunch on.” In 2007, the couple decided to focus all their efforts on the business and relocated the entire bakery, including their bread-making equipment, from their kitchen to a stand at the Farmstead Farmers Market.
Hours before the market opens at 8 on Friday and Saturday mornings, Smith and her small team of bakers begin milling, mixing, shaping the loaves and baking the breads, muffins and cookies. Artisan bread offerings listed on the sign above the counter include such delights as country French, French baguettes and Italian. Some original concoctions include “cheese volcano,” which bursts from the inside with a special blend of assorted cheeses, and the pesto bread, comprised of a French dough incorporating basil or tomato pesto. There’s also Smith’s oatmeal loaf, a dill and veggie loaf and a loaf swirled with fresh-roasted garlic and feta.
“My brain never turns off,” Smith says with a laugh. “I’ll browse the spice aisle at the supermarket and come up with something to bake into the bread. A restaurant once asked us for an apple loaf, but all I had was apricots, so I created a spiced apricot loaf. I get excited about different recipes.”
But according to Smith, the preference for artisan bread goes beyond history, and beyond health awareness. Artisan bread demands attention. It’s not something one can eat without taking notice. Artisan bread, Smith says, is its “own experience.”
“Bite into it and it crackles and crunches,” she says. “Italian loaves have a hearty crust. It can wipe that sauce off the plate. French loaves have a tender-crisp crust. It’s the whole tactile thing that happens when you eat bread. You hold that bread in your hands; it has texture. Artisan bread speaks to you when you put it in your mouth.”
Bakery equipment lines Smith’s stand at the Palmyra farmers’ market, but only a mixer is used in the creation of artisan bread. The rest is done by hand and, much to the delight of customers, the bread-making process can be witnessed by anyone walking by. “It’s like being on stage,” Smith explains. They can watch us fold it and smush it. “That’s how love gets into the bread.”
Smith saw that love up close and personal while growing up. She used to watch her mother bake her own bread. It was white bread, nothing fancy. Yet ironically, Smith wasn’t satisfied and would complain.
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