Chad Robertson
Still the best way to cut dense rugbrød: Camilla Plum's family heirloom hand-cranked slicing machine.
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The Baker in the Rye

Chad Robertson / April 2012

Chad Robertson, one of America’s premier bread masters, travels to Denmark for hands-on, mind-expanding work with whole grains. Translation: New breads at his bakery/sandwich shop next to Bar Tartine in San Francisco.

Working on Tartine Bread was pretty straightforward. Published in 2010, the book told the story of how I learned to make bread, the people I learned from, and how I was able to adapt techniques to achieve a wide range of results, all while working within a system of self-imposed strictures that were important to me. The basic recipe, which the entire premise of the book was built upon, detailed how to make the basic Tartine Bakery country loaf at home. This bread, and all its variations, tilted toward the whiter flour and lighter flavored loaf.

For many years I focused my efforts and exploration on the process of natural fermentation and how far one could take it while still maintaining deep balanced flavors. By the time I started making bread on my own, artisan baking in America was well underway. The Acme Bread Company, on the West Coast, and others on the East had been making great bread for over almost a decade. Our homegrown wheat flour had a reputation abroad as “strong flour,” with characteristics good for baking: high-quality gluten allowing for optimum dough development and fermentation tolerance, which results in breads with good volume, crust, and crumb. But still, for most of us, wheat flours and, for that matter, bread, were pretty black and white—or rather brown and white. The general perception of bread fell into two categories: white bread or darker brown whole wheat bread. The first is made from sifted white flour, and the other from all, or in part, whole wheat flour. To add variation, bakers use all sorts of things to flavor the breads: nuts, seeds, dried fruit, herbs, cheese, etc.

Having lived in Northern California for the past 20 years, I’ve witnessed an incredible increase in the diversity of produce available to us. Years ago we had a few tomato varieties to choose from, a couple of different kales, one sort of broccoli, and no one talked much about chicories, brassicas, and alliums, not to mention citrus, stone fruits, herbs, apples, root vegetables, and beans (fresh and dried). Now we have dozens of varieties of each, all with a distinct flavor and character. For cooks, that’s a playland. Why, then, have bakers here been working with only a few grains for so long?

When I wrote about my baking journey in the book, I briefly touched on one aspect that was actually very central to the way I had come to approach making bread: using whole grain and diverse types of grains to vary flavors and textures. This aspect of baking was too big to properly address in Tartine Bread. It would demand its own book, and there was a lot more that I needed to learn and discover for myself before presenting my take on whole grain bread making.

As this notion became more focused over a year ago, my wife and business partner, Elisabeth Prueitt, and I set off to take our young daughter to an intensive physical therapy camp in a small Polish fishing village on the Baltic Sea directly across from Scandinavia. While there, I made arrangements to visit my friend Kille Enna, the Danish chef/cookbook author I had met years ago when she was cooking at Manka’s Lodge in Inverness, California, and before that at Rubicon when Traci Des Jardins was in charge and Elizabeth Falkner was making the pastries. Enna set me up to explore the regional breads of Denmark. So after settling my family into the camp, I made my way to Copenhagen, from where Enna and I set out to make bread at Camilla Plum’s farm just outside of the city. Plum is an authority on Scandinavian food and tradition. Per Kølster, her partner at the time, was growing Nordic wheats and ryes, as well as hops, to make the beer served at Noma. Plum stone-milled the grains for the exceptional bread she made weekends when the farm shop opened and for the bread workshops she teaches regularly. Although it was late January, the height of winter, her greenhouses were filled with thousands of varieties of plants started for the coming growing season. I later learned that her farm is home to one of the largest organic seed banks in Northern Europe (outside of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which is not exclusively organic).

After spending a few days baking on the farm, we returned to Copenhagen, where Enna introduced me to Claus Meyer, the Danish chef/baker and self-described gastro-entrepreneur founder of the multidimensional Meyer Group. Meyer kick-started the progressive Nordic food movement (“Northern Lights”), having opened Noma in 2003 with the visionary chef René Red­zepi and founded the Nordic Food Lab, a think tank for stretching the region’s culinary possibilities. By the time I rejoined my family in Poland so we could make our way home, I was already planning a return trip to Scandinavia to visit my new friends.

The Nordic region, particularly Denmark and Sweden, is at the forefront of a progressive culinary movement defined by foraged wild foods and the fusion of modern and traditional cooking techniques. A key part of this ongoing exploration is the restoration of Scandinavian heirloom grains. For two decades, Meyer, with the help of dedicated farmers, millers, grain researchers, and bakers, has been working to reintroduce these grains into the food culture. What they’re beginning to achieve was a revelation to me.

The daily bread of the region, a strong whole grain rye loaf called rugbrød, is eaten in thin slices topped with infinite combinations of cured meats, vegetables, smoked fish, and more that comprises a daytime meal or snack called smørrebrød. Refreshingly, white flour and white bread aren’t typical of the region. I enjoyed the excellent breads, but what really impressed me was the variety of grains—dozens of heirloom Nordic wheats and ryes—bakers had at their disposal.

I let Meyer know my plan: to return to Copenhagen and work with like-minded chefs and bakers, see what native grains they were using, and spend time making bread and sharing techniques. He graciously opened his bakeshops to me, and I was invited to make bread using the Nordic wheats.

The week before I arrived, he came up with the idea that I’d teach a class on making bread using stone-ground Nordic wheat, baking at his cooking school, the Meyers Madhus. Bakers, growers, and millers from all over Denmark and Sweden signed up for the class. He also invited journalists from television stations, Denmark’s two largest newspapers, and food magazines. The thing was, I’d never worked with Nordic whole grain flours before, so I had no idea what the outcome would be. Expectations for what I would make were high, and the pressure was on.

Soon after I arrived, with the knowledge of this upcoming class hanging over my head, Nicolai Skytte, at the time the chief baker in charge of Meyer’s bakeries, invited me in to do some test baking. It was nice to know that someone had my back, given that I was far from home. I found the Scandinavians to be much more open to new ideas and flavors than people in any other place I’d lived or worked—interested as well as interesting. They freely shared their recipes and techniques, and I hoped to do the same.

Using their freshly stone-milled wheat, I mixed the dough pretty much as I would at home, using the natural leaven I brought from San Francisco and maintained with the native flour. The bread turned out far better than any of us expected. The Danish bakers were astonished that a whole grain bread made with natural leaven could have such a light texture and achieve such volume. They had even apologized in advance for the quality of flour, saying it had been a bad year for wheat in Denmark. In spite of this, the bread turned out as good, or better, than anything I’d made back home, proof that we were working with very high-quality grain.

On my first visit baking with Plum at her farm, we used a Nordic wheat called Dragon. According to her, this was the only place on the planet growing this strain of wheat at that time. They preferred the flavor of the Dragon to that of Ølland, the wheat in vogue during this time last year and used at Noma, Relæ, and select bakeshops to make a distinctly delicious bread. A purely Nordic variety, named for the island it’s grown on in Sweden, the flavor and aroma is exceptional.

Now, baking with the Meyer’s team in their new bakeshop in the center of town, we were testing a recently cultivated Nordic wheat variety called Goldblume. Again, the flavor and baking qualities again were exceptional, similar to those of the best North American wheat. While it certainly tasted like wheat, it was distinct from the other varieties I had been working with. It’s hard to describe: It was rich and slightly sweet with a subtle tannin, a bit like brown butter. The flour was freshly stone ground, and the volatile aromas of oils from the germ were present. This was something new—tasting wheat varieties as if they were different berries at the market, a notion of import that marked the start of my next baker’s quest.

My history with whole grain Scandinavian bread actually goes back many years to my early days in Point Reyes Station, California, when I was baking solo in a wood-fired oven. After landing in West Marin following a year of living and working in France, I met the partly Danish Weiner family. Marianne, the matriarch was looking to start a small business making her mother’s rugbrød a couple of days per week. While the style of bread I was making at the time required very high baking temperatures, her rugbrød required a low, gentler heat and at least twice the baking time. My wood-fired oven wasn’t being used after it dropped below 500 degrees, so Marianne proposed a trade: She’d help deliver my bread around town if she could use my oven after I was done with it. This arrangement worked well for many years, and I’ve been selling Marianne’s rye bread in our shop at Tartine Bakery since we opened in 2002, so she delivers her own bread to me these days.

After returning home, I set to work with my team on making new breads using the variety of whole grains we have available here already. We began making our own blends of flours, trying to achieve an overall look and crumb structure similar to the original Tartine country loaf. What we had to figure out was how to do this while incorporating a range of different, often low gluten or “softer” grains in the blend in a high enough percentage so that the true flavor of kamut, barley, emmer, or einkorn, for example, would become the defining flavor characteristic of the bread while still achieving the volume and overall appearance of an aesthetically pleasing loaf. The blending allows for using stronger common wheat flours where they’re needed to add volume or body to complement an ancient grain that may have excellent and distinct flavor but not very good baking qualities.

I also began to experiment with my own version of rugbrød, which is traditionally made with a large portion of rye flour or whole grain berries and fermented with a sourdough culture. The dough is a rather sticky paste and is scooped into pans or forms to rise and bake. While I’ve enjoyed eating traditional rugbrød and countless smørrebrød interpretations, I have to be honest: this heavy and dense whole grain rye bread is not so easy on the stomach. From my first mentor, Richard Bourdon, I was taught the importance of making bread that is easy to digest. This lesson is brought close to home by my wife’s intolerance to gluten. Gluten-free products have mushroomed into a big business. What interests me is how to make native and ancient grains more easily digestible for all of us, gluten-intolerant or not.

Using a natural leaven gives bread more flavor and keeping qualities. My favorite rugbrød is made with a large percentage of whole kernel rye berries that adds a unique texture to the slice of bread since it’s composed chiefly of whole grain berries and seeds bound together with little flour. To make this more suitable for daily consumption, I’ve combined two approaches that complement each other in the finished product. As with all of the breads we make, we start with a long natural fermentation. Then we sprout the rye berries. Together, these two factors work to achieve a much more digestible rugbrød loaf than what I am used to eating. Sprouting the grains adds a measure of sweetness, balancing the overall flavor profile without increasing the sugar in the recipe.

These new styles of mixed grains and sprouted whole grain breads we’ve developed form the foundation for the sandwich shop we opened in March next to Bar Tartine a block away from the bakery. We built a massive bread oven next door to the restaurant, opened the wall to connect the spaces, and installed a custom-built 12-foot sandwich station, all fronted by a glass storefront to house the sandwich shop. The first batch of breads comes out of the oven around 9 a.m.; we make sandwiches on them shortly after that. Breakfast sandwiches are assembled on toast or fresh biscuits left to rise overnight with a natural leaven. The bread for afternoon sandwiches is baked around noon; the bread for dinner next door just before service.

We’ve even named the breads influenced by my time in Scandinavia. Sprouted René’s Rye, inspired by a friend, the Danish master chef René Bolvig, now manager of the Copenhagen conference/banquet center Moltke’s Palace, is our interpretation of rugbrød made with sprouted seeds, buttermilk, and beer. Bar Tartine Northern Coast brown bread is a blend of Northern California and Washington State wheats made in the style of our house bread. My favorite, though, is the sprouted Tartine hearth loaf: moist, open-textured Tartine country-style loaves flavored by a long rise and filled with freshly sprouted organic whole berry grains. As for sandwiches: smoked and spiced BN Ranch turkey with crispy bacon and lettuce and special sauce on our house bread made with a blend of NorCal white wheat varieties; lamb meatballs with smoked tomato sauce and nettle pesto on sprouted barley buns; and fresh crushed fava paste, house-made feta-style cheese, charred peppers, and herb vinaigrette on sprouted kamut flatbreads are just a few of the many we’ll be coming up with.

My hope is that this model will help drive the movement to diversify the grain-growing culture by introducing new flavors and more ways to enjoy and appreciate freshly milled whole grains. It’s our job as bakers to make it count by making it good. As farmers across the country continue to plant different varieties of grains, we as bakers and consumers will have more choice in the varieties of grain we’re able to work with to make bread. In that bio-diversity, there’s a world of flavors most of us have yet to taste. But we will.