Saturday Morning at Bellegarde Bakery
So, what’s it like baking Bellegarde bread? Let’s head into the bakery on a Saturday morning.
It’s 3:15am when Graison Gill and his newest baker, Isaac, open the doors and fire the oven. They have the day’s dough for 500 loaves already fermenting from yesterday in the cooler.
The two work mostly in silence with the exception of some quiet background music, cutting and shaping the dough for baguettes, loaves, boules and scones to let them proof on a few nondescript rolling racks draped with linen couche cloths. The little room is filled with racks of rising dough in all shapes and sizes, some lined up in rows, others resting in special shaping baskets called bannetons. Just before 4, the oven is piping hot (right around 550° F.) and it’s time for Gill to start stacking the oven. The racks of proofing dough get rolled into the even sparer back room where he personally plops each loaf onto a mechanical canvas conveyer belt that, once full, he lifts to the appropriate shelf of the oven and slides all of the loaves in.
This is both physical and artistic work, cajoling each loaf gently from its resting place onto the canvas belt with baskets and paddles; scoring each loaf with its own unique markings to guide its bloom and create a beautiful product; lifting and thrusting the conveyer apparatus into and out of the oven over and over again; then using a 12-foot wooden baker’s peel to pull loaves out by the batch, hand-check their crust and crispiness and either return them to the oven for finishing or stack them on the cooling rack as necessary. You can sense a kind of boyish joy in Gill as he moves up and down, peering in each little window to check on the miche below and the baguettes and scones on top.
Just before 5, the other two bakers arrive. Brett, Bellegarde’s ingenious head baker, has been baking with Gill since the beginning at Delicious Kitchen; Joan, another recent addition, fills out the baking team. It was largely Brett’s initial influence that led Gill to local grains and acquiring his own stone mill. With all four bakers on hand, production goes into full swing.
Gill shuttles loaves in and out of the oven, using any down time to help Isaac roll baguettes. Isaac patiently and meticulously cuts, shapes and rolls tray after tray of baguettes. Brett bounces back and forth between the baguette rolling, checking on their various homemilled flours, heating water to autolyse some of the day’s dough, and mixing the sourdough levain (the flour and water mixture that sits for hours culturing natural yeasts and bacteria as leavening that gives their sourdoughs their distinctive flavor). Joan cuts and shapes the ciabatta while checking on the day’s orders and making sure everything’s where it should be.
It’s a beautiful choreography. Even on the second coldest morning of the year, with no climate control, the rooms are warm with movement and fresh, crusty bread starting to stack up.
At 7, it’s time to start loading the truck for Saturday’s farmers market. Gill has been a vendor and supporter on and off for six years now and uses it as a place to network with local farmers and talk to customers about his product and process. The market has built him a dedicated following. The tiny truck is packed to the brim with fresh loaves and display cases before Graison and Isaac leave for the market at 7:30. Joan and Brett stay behind to finish the day’s loaves. They’ll send out two shipments to stores and restaurants across the city later in the morning.
Graison and Isaac pull up to the market with just a few minutes to set up before the opening bell. As soon as it rings, they are slicing samples for the stream of passersby, selling loaves to their fellow vendors (the pasta guy next to them uses their breads to sample his sauces), and sharing the joy of an honest day’s work and an honest loaf of truly great bread.