Sometimes people are motivated to do something well. On occasion they’re even driven to produce something exceptional, which is the case with Rick Easton, whose bakery, Bread & Salt, is the latest addition to Bloomfield’s burgeoning food scene.
Easton’s crusty loaves of perfectly baked bread have inspired both a following and surprisingly, a measure of scorn. It is certainly easy to understand the former. Easton’s bread is so good that when paired with a salad and a glass of wine, it’s a gourmet meal. His crust is at first bite, crisp and then chewy. And inside, the texture is light, or lighter, depending on the amount of whole grain used.
A native of Pittsburgh, Easton moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where for a decade he worked for several caterers and restaurants before starting his own wood-fired baking business in 2007. When he returned to Pittsburgh in 2014, he ended up situating his bakery in Bloomfield because a friend out walking his dog discovered an abandoned pizzeria with an oven at 300 Pearl Street and suggested Easton take a look.
Though the building had extensive water damage, the rent was low and the oven was a bonus, so it seemed to be a good prospect. As it turned out, the oven didn’t function and the building required so much work that although he signed a lease in May, Easton wasn’t able to open his bakery until January. Despite these initial setbacks, Easton liked the milieu, “I thought it be cool to do something traditionally Italian, here in a traditionally Italian neighborhood. And I thought I could do something that the neighborhood could be proud of.”
Q: What makes you proud about Bread & Salt?
A: We’re not only authentically old school, but we’re the only bakery in the region that uses exclusively organic flour and exclusively natural fermentation, which means no “commercial” yeast. Though I use a starter, I don’t like the common parlance of sourdough because it implies a great deal of acidity in the bread and I don’t produce that. The natural leavening process can be controlled, depending on how you work with time and temperature; these are the variables you can control. You can favor more lactic acid or more acidic acid. Acidic acid is more vinegary and I do what I can to minimize that.
Q: What’s the advantage of producing and eating naturally fermented bread?
A: There are incredible advantages. For one thing, it produces bread that is far more complex, far more flavorful, and far more nutritious. Bread was naturally fermented for about six thousand years, but in the last couple hundred years a particular strain of yeast was isolated and that single strain is now the commercial yeast that most bakeries use. In a starter like the one I use, there are hundreds if not thousands of strains of yeast living in it. Mono-culture is never healthy. Diversity will not only produce something with a more interesting flavor, but it produces a better texture, keeps the bread fresher, and is much more digestible.
Q: How much more digestible?
A: The Italians are leading the way with research on gluten issues and sensitivities to wheat, and what they’re finding is that bread that is naturally fermented, slowly, with a natural starter is way more digestible. That’s because when bread is slow fermented, the offending protein is about 12 parts per million, which according to U.S. standards is actually low enough to be considered gluten free. I’m not going to pay a laboratory to test all my products to make this claim, but I do have customers who have complained about gluten-sensitivities, but who can eat the bread and pizza that I bake and the pastries I make.
Q: What makes your products special?
A: There are a couple of things: first, ingredients and second, process.
Mine is a 24-hour process, but for most bakeries making bread is a two-hour process from the mixer to the oven. And that’s why a lot of bread goes stale so quickly, why it dries out. When you use a natural starter, and a slow fermentation process, you end up using more water in the dough, so the bread doesn’t dry out quickly the way that most bakery breads do. My bread will eventually dry out, but it’s good to eat for between four to six days. And after that, it makes great croutons or breadcrumbs.
As for flours, I couldn’t even source organic flours from wholesalers in Pittsburgh, because, as I was told, there’s no market for it. So on Tuesdays I drive an hour south to pick up local winter wheat flours from an organic farm operated by Nigel Tutor, who mills it fresh just before I arrive. It’s amazing to think that the bread I’m making today had to be thought about last fall, because that’s when the winter wheat was planted. It was planted in the fall, went dormant over the winter, and then was harvested mid-summer.
I get the bulk of my white flour from Central Milling in Utah. Central Milling contracts with farmers to provide them with an income regardless of their harvest. I also buy specialty flours from Hayden Flour Mills in Arizona, which sells freshly stone-milled ancient and heritage grains.
Q: What’s with all the hype about ancient grains?
A: These grains are pre-green revolution, before farming was industrialized. For instance, the Italians have cultivated farro for centuries. There’s farro piccolo, farro medio, and farro grande, which are einkorn, emmer, and spelt, respectively. These strains of grain tend to be high in protein with only a trace of gluten, which is why people with gluten sensitivities can often eat breads made from these grains. But what is most exciting about them are the flavor possibilities. Every single one of these different strains of wheat tastes different, smells different, and has different pigments and baking characteristics.
You can tell when you add water to the flour that each type of wheat is different. And you can tell from the final product because there are a whole host of different flavors. When people in the United States think about bread, they need to realize that what they’re generally ingesting is commodity flour that is not only completely stripped of it’s nutrients, but is also completely stripped of all taste. Commodity wheat only exists because it is more shelf-stable, and so more profitable.
Glenn Roberts, of Anson Mills, is one of the great pioneers of heirloom small grain agriculture. He said we don’t even have a vocabulary to discuss the flavor of grain. The interesting thing is that if you taste different grains, the raw kernels or just the flour, you’ll find that some of them are incredibly sweet, some of them are nutty, while others are grassy, or have notes of chocolate. But because our vocabulary to discuss them is limited, it limits our ability to conceptualize that.
Q: What drew you to baking?
A: I started baking bread because the more I traveled the more I realized just how bad American bread was. Though baking bread is incredibly labor and time-intensive, it’s also incredibly rewarding.
People have a tendency to romanticize bread baking, but in reality, as Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery put it, “it’s about as glamorous as working in the car wash.” And I think that’s true, but the thing about bread is that when you go to other places in the world and you get a glimpse of other cultures, you realize just how central bread is to the subsistence of that culture—and to civilization itself. The rise of civilization and the rise of the domestication of grain happened along very closely connected parallel lines.
When you go to Europe or the Middle East, the bread is extraordinary and people don’t take it for granted. If you drop a piece of bread, you pick it up, dust it off, and put it back on the table. No scrap of bread is ever wasted. There’s a millions ways to use it even if it goes stale, you can use it in puddings or make bread crumbs, which to me is one of the most valuable ingredients you can have in a kitchen.
Q: What is the best bread you’ve eaten?
A: The first remarkable piece of bread I ever ate was in Morocco. In the south of Morocco there is still a strong tradition of people making naturally leavened, slow-fermented breads in wood-fired ovens. Community ovens there are still in use, so people make their dough at home and then carry it to the bakery in their neighborhood. And some of those same people sell their bread through the community bakery, so none of the bread you buy there is the product of an industrialized process.
Q: Have you ever tried to replicate that bread?
A: Of course, there was one, in particular, made with barley. I got close, but it was never the same. But then I realized that the flavor could not easily be reproduced in part because their variety of barley and wheat, and the characteristics of the harvest of that year, cannot be reproduced. And there’s no point in literal translations anyway. That bread had a context. And you can’t recreate the context. In the end, it’s more important to understand the essence of something, the nature of it, and be faithful to the spirit of it.”
Q: Why are some people downright irate about your pricing?
A: I know some people are upset about the cost of my products. But my expenses are higher than other bakeries because of the quality of my ingredients, which are substantially more expensive for me to buy.
Conventional wisdom in the industry is that you mark up your product ten times. So whatever it cost you to make a loaf, you mark it up so that you charge ten times what it cost you to make. I don’t do that. I’ve had customers tell me that bread should cost three dollars a loaf, and my response to that is ‘if you want to eat something that it cost thirty cents to make, that’s your business.’ I’m not twisting anyone’s arm to buy my bread, pizza, or pastries.
Q: In addition to the higher cost, customers have to buy your bread by the pound. Why is that?
A: We don’t sell things by weight; we price things by weight. So if a customer comes in and spreads his hands apart and says, “I want about this much,” we can accommodate him. I bake large loaves that weigh about a kilogram (2.2 pounds) each. They’re often too large for a customer’s needs, but large loaves tend to keep better, so it makes sense to buy portions from a large loaf. In Italy they bake enormous loaves that are twice the size of mine, and they sell customers chunks of the loaf. So people end up sharing a loaf with someone they’ve never met, and there’s something humanizing about that.
What about the malicious tweets?
They were written by a fellow who was outraged at the cost of my pizza and tweeted insults about my bakery. This, despite my willingness to refund his money. And he didn’t have to buy the pizza when his purchase was rung up. It’s not like we twisted his arm. What I would say to others who don’t like my prices, “if you don’t want to spend more than you would in a supermarket, you don’t want my bread, but if quality is important to you, stop in and try a sample.
Bread & Salt is located at 300 Pearl Street and is open Thursday through Saturday. Each Thursday and Friday Easton makes about 40 loaves, assorted pizzas and pastries. On Saturdays the 80 loaves he bakes quickly disappear from the shelves.