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Baking the Way It Used to Be Done

  • Loaves of bread. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Mark Shaw, a driver for Green Mountain Flour, packages freshly baked bread. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Wood-fired oven pizza cools. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Zach Stremlau, owner of Green Mountain Flour in Windsor, moves pizza to another rack. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Corn and grains are stone ground at the Windsor operation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Artisanal bread bakers in the Upper Valley are almost as thick on the ground as sugar maples, but Zach Stremlau, who began Green Mountain Flour in Windsor four years ago, has taken the process one step further. Rather than buying pre-packaged flour for use in his breads and pizzas, he mills it himself with organically grown grains that he buys from growers in Vermont and elsewhere in Northern New England, Quebec and New York state.

Working out of his home on a rural road in Windsor, where he refitted a two-car garage into a bread bakery, Stremlau began the company as a way to marry two of his abiding interests: baking and agriculture. Like others of his generation, he’s in the wave of Americans who have fueled a revival of interest in traditional food ways.

They look to the way food was grown before World War II and the advent of industrially-produced, processed foods. They are more interested in craft and quality than the assembly line, and they’re conscious of the environmental cost of doing business.

If they haven’t quite figured out how to solve the conundrum of making such labor-intensive products affordable to a larger segment of Americans, rather than just a narrow slice, they are working on it. And respecting and fitting into the region’s agricultural landscape and history is part of their ethos.

“I’m trying to recreate and steep myself in the culture and heritage of northern New England,” Stremlau said.

Quiet and precise in his speech, Stremlau, 40, lives with his wife, Daniella Malin, who works on environmental issues at the Sustainable Food Lab in Hartland, and their two daughters, Hannah, 6, and Naomi, 3. They also have a Portuguese water dog and a ginger cat that patrols for rodents and other small animals that could make inroads into the grains Stremlau stores in the former garage.

Stremlau buys organic wheat, spelt, barley, rye, corn and buckwheat from various sources in the region. As often as possible he buys from Vermont producers, but if the grains aren’t available from them, he looks to organic producers in the Northeast and Quebec. He then runs the grains through a mill made by a North Carolina company that has been manufacturing stone-ground mills since 1902.

Stone-ground flour retains, he said, essential oils, enzymes and nutrients that make it healthier and more flavorful than bleached, processed white flour. None of the grain or its byproducts (germ, bran) go to waste. He gives them away to farmers for livestock or uses them at home for cereals and baking.

He sells the breads and flour to stores and farmstands in White River Junction, Lebanon, Hanover, Norwich and Claremont, and also does a mail-order business through his website. Breads retail from between $4.50 and $5.50 per loaf; a two-pound bag of flour sells for between $3 and $5. He handles much of the operation himself, although he has a driver to make deliveries, and in August he hired one employee, Sara Andrews, who moved back to New England after a stint in Chicago where she had her own bakery.

Stremlau’s insistence on making bread the old-fashioned way, using relatively old-fashioned methods, is rooted in his belief that the industrial bread-makers after the war did some illogical things, like stripping out nutrients and minerals to make white flour, only to artificially add them back in later. The kinds of flours he is working with, he said, are “living foods,” while he considers white flour to be an “engineered food.”

While the industrialization of food “lifted a lot of people out of malnutrition and poverty,” he said, he believes it has now gone too far in the other direction, in terms of processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt that can contribute to rising rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Stremlau starts at four in the morning, begins mixing dough at five, and finishes up five hours later. At 10 a.m., he’s putting away the baker’s peels and closing up his wood-fired clay oven, which won’t see use until the next day. By the next morning, the oven will have dropped from a baking temperature of 500 degrees to a relatively modest 300 degrees, and the work of building and stoking the fire will begin again.

On a recent morning, Stremlau is baking pizzas and pitas. The cold outside is penetrating, but the bakery is warm and fragrant with the smell of bubbling cheese and baking dough. The pizzas go in to the oven fully assembled, but bake for only a few minutes; they’re then pulled out and left to cool on racks. From there they go out to local stores for sale. “I aim to bake the pizzas about 60 to 70 percent done so that people who buy at the co-ops can take it home and reheat without loss of integrity,” Stremlau said.

With an easy dexterity that comes from practice, Stremlau transfers the pitas from the long-handled baker’s peel into the oven. Within 30 seconds the flat discs begin to puff up as big and round as balloons, the effect of intense heat on the dough. As soon as they’re removed from the oven, they deflate again. His daughters love to come in and feel the pitas, Stremlau said. “When they’re still warm they put them on their hands like gloves.”

Stremlau grew up in Brooklin, Maine, and in Kentucky. He began baking when he was a teenager, at a summer job in a restaurant on the Maine coast. The chef knew how to do a lot of things, but making bread was not one of them, so Stremlau, who was then 15, told him, “You need fresh bread; I’m going to be your baker.”

All of us have memories of significant moments in our lives. One of Stremlau’s centers on baking: “I remember pretty clearly tasting for the first time a loaf of hearth-baked bread, and it opened my eyes to what bread could be,” he said.

So began what has been a life-long investigation into baking: its chemistry, biology, techniques and the x factors of air, water and earth that ensure that the same kind of breads made from the same grains in separate locations are likely to taste quite different from one another. That Stremlau also spent a year and a half at a Buddhist monastic retreat in San Francisco is not so far removed from what he does now, he said, since both “involve the examination of process.”

After moving back East, and focusing on finding work in Vermont, he landed a job first at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, where he picked up the finer points of baking bread and pastry. Then he worked at Cobb Hill Cheese in Hartland, where he learned about cheese making.

In time, Stremlau said, he would like to expand the business and hire more employees. Outlining his plans to grow the company and describing his punctilious way of doing things, Stremlau smiled. “I’ve figured out the most difficult way to make a loaf of bread,” he said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.