If you spend a lazy autumn afternoon grazing your way through the superb food offerings at Brooklyn Flea; browsing the local, small-batch artisanal delectables on the shelves at shops like Blue Apron, Brooklyn Larder, or Stinky; pouring over the selection of local craft beers at Bierkraft or Spuyten Duyvil; or drooling over a meticulously-sourced menu at one of our borough’s many fine sustainable-minded restaurants…you might find yourself forgetting that just a couple of decades ago there was hardly anyone at all making good local, artisanal, sustainable food. Not just in Brooklyn…we mean anywhere in this country.
Dan Leader, the founder of Brooklyn Greenmarket mainstay Bread Alone, was a pioneer of the artisanal food movement in the New York metropolitan area. He left the city in 1983 and moved his family upstate to pursue his dream of making great bread, by hand, in wood-fired ovens, with sustainable, organic ingredients.
Let’s just say the people like his bread and like his approach: Almost thirty years after pulling those first steaming loaves out of his hand-built oven, Bread Alone now has over 100 employees, several hundred wholesale customers, three cafes upstate, and they bring freshly-baked breads and pastries to 52 farmers markets each week. The best part of the Bread Alone story? All that bread is still made by hand, in wood fired ovens, with local ingredients and certified organic grains.
Dan sat down with us to talk bread for a few minutes earlier this week.
Nona: How did you come to open Bread Alone?
Dan: I grew up in Buffalo and I went to the Culinary Institue in Hyde Park after studying philosophy in college. After finishing up at the culinary school, I moved to New York to work as a chef.
I worked in french restaurants. At that time, everyone in the kitchens was French – I was always the lone American. The restaurants would all close in August for the traditional French summer holiday, and the guys would all go back to France for the month. I’d go visit them, and when I was over there I met all these bakers. I became fascinated by the whole art of making great bread and that’s where the idea of making artisanal bread back home began.
After our kids were born, being a chef and raising a family in the city started to feel daunting for a lot of reasons. It just seemed like the right time to move back up to the Hudson Valley, which I’d grown to love while at culinary school, open a bakery, and start trying to make great bread.
Looking back, I had so little experience at the time – it was really inspiration, a little luck and a lot of hard work that got us to where we are today.
How many other artisanal bakers were out there when you got started?
There were a couple of small bakeries in New England that I spent time with before opening Bread Alone, but in the New York metropolitan area we were really the first. I didn’t know this at the time, but Steve Sullivan opened Acme Bread the same month that I opened Bread Alone. Steve had worked at Chez Panisse and he was one of the first to bring that really artisanal approach to bread making out in California with Acme.
It was quite some time before the next generation of artisanal bakers in this area – like Tomcat, Amy’s Bread, Eli’s Bread and Sullivan Street – came along. It’s kind of like a family – when Noel from Tomcat was working on opening his bakery, he came up to Bread Alone to spend some time with us. When Amy wanted to get started, I helped her arrange an apprenticeship in Paris. And Jim Leahy from Sullivan Street came up to Bread Alone to practice his recipes after his first trip to Italy. It’s been great to see their success.
What breads were you baking when you opened your doors?
We started with six – the peasant bread, the sour rye, the mixed grain, the farm bread, a raisin pumpernickel, and the raisin walnut. I just wanted to have a good cross-section of flavors when we started.
How many do you varieties bake now?
We make a LOT of different breads now. We use over 20 doughs and we make all kinds of pastries, which we didn’t do when we opened. We’ve made thousands of varieties of muffins, scones, croissants, danish, apple tarts, pies …
We bake our several of our breads year-round, but we also do a lot of seasonal varieties – more than I can count. Right now we’re doing our apple cider bread, mushroom ciabattas, focaccia with fresh herbs, apple turnovers…lots more.
One thing we love about being at so many farmers markets is it allows us to be really creative. If we want to try new varieties I don’t have to call retail clients and convince them to put it on their shelves – we can just make what we want and send it out to the farmers markets each week.
You’ve been committed to using organic grains and local produce in your products since you opened. How do you source your ingredients?
Anything that we can buy local, we do buy local. We use local milk, butter, apples, onions, mushrooms – whatever we can get. We get 100% of our pastry and cake grains and flours from local farmers and mills. We get all our spelt from a mill in Pennsylvania.
Where local sourcing gets complicated for us is with grain and flour for our breads. There just isn’t a supply chain in place yet for that allows us to source all of our grains from local certified organic farmers and mills. There’s organic wheat being grown locally – the big stumbling block is that there aren’t enough local certified organic mills capable of producing a steady supply of flour at a reasonable cost to larger-scale bakers like us. With the supply network that’s currently in place, we would end up having to ship truckloads of grain long distances from the farms to the mills and back to our bakery.
We do the best we can, though – we get about 30% of our bread flour from local producers. The rest comes from the midwest – for now. There’s been such an increase in demand for locally grown and milled organic wheat that it’ll be a whole different ballgame in five years.
What brought Bread Alone to Brooklyn?
We were one of the original vendors at both the Borough Hall and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarkets. We’ve been selling bread at the Park Slope Food Coop for a long, long time too. Now, in addition to Borough Hall and Grand Army Plaza we’re at the Carroll Gardens, Cortelyou, and Bay Ridge markets.
Brooklynites seem to like your bread. I live a few blocks from Grand Army Plaza and your stand there is usually surrounded by a hungry mob.
Picture a circle with a quarter mile radius around Grand Army Plaza…we sell more bread in that area alone than anyplace else. We literally sell an entire truckload of bread at the Grand Army Plaza market each week – that’s almost 3,000 pounds of bread in seven hours.
What are some of your favorite food spots in Brooklyn?
I’m in Brooklyn all the time. I love it. A friend of mine has a great Polish bakery in Williamsburg called Old Poland. They make really great bigos, which is one of the best foods in the world – it’s a sauerkraut, pork and duck stew.
In Williamsburg, I also like Blue Bottle Coffee, Mast Brothers Chocolate and Radegast Beer Hall a lot. Motorino is great – they’re making a sourdough pizza dough which I think is quite good. I love Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder…Brooklyn is full of great food.
Dan’s son, Nels, provided us with a sample of bread last Sunday at the Carroll Gardens Farmers Market. Standing in line with the rustic smell of bread in the air on a chilly morning, it was hard not to feel an almost inherent love of bread: its heartiness, flavors, and textures seem to appeal to all the senses.
The craftsmanship of Bread Alone was certainly on display. We sampled everything from croissants to apple pastries, mushroom ciabatta to French sourdough and our favorite, a cranberry-nut peasant loaf. The croissants were exceptional: a delicate balance of flakiness and chewiness. When heated up, the mushroom ciabatta provided the perfect accompaniment to a pasta fagioli soup.
Our unanimous favorite, however, was the peasant bread, a caramel-colored loaf with a crisp outside and airy texture. The bitter-sweetness of the cranberry mixed with the a nutty walnut flavor provided a great balance, making the bread a treat all its own (although we enjoyed the saltiness provided by olive oil).
The ingredients may be the most impressive thing about Bread Alone’s creations. The French Sourdough features just five: organic unbleached white flour, water, organic whole wheat sourdough, organic whole flour, and sea salt. But don’t let the simplicity fool you: the final product is capable of some complex flavors. And as Bread Alone continues to experiment with local flavors, we’re likely to get even more tasty combinations. We’ll be first in line…unless you beat us to it.