Artisan baker Randy George likes to point out that when his Danish friends are in town, he always makes sure to bake plenty of rye bread. “They will eat a loaf of rye bread before a half day is gone,” he says, explaining the influence of culture on bread consumption.
“In general, the American market is still waking up to whole rye,” says George, owner of Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, Vermont. “I think rye is an area that can be explored more by creating interesting flavors with whole rye.”
Founded in 1999, Red Hen Baking is opening doors for all types of flavorful artisan breads, including ryes, throughout the state of Vermont. On average, Red Hen bakes 2,200 loaves of bread per day and makes 65 daily deliveries to wholesale accounts such as local grocery stores and restaurants. Wholesale accounts for roughly 70 percent of total business.
Local grains are a priority. The bakery estimates 430,000 pounds of local wheat go into the making of their breads every year.
“For me, first and foremost, it’s the gratification that we make a difference in farmers’ lives,” he says. “Of course, it has to taste great. If local food is not excellent, we are really hindering the local food movement. Where it sometimes gets difficult is finding something local that is distinguishable.”
George, who owns the bakery with his wife Eliza Cain, says they keep a half dozen starters going, including two whites and one rye. “It’s all about the process, and how I manage my starter. The variables I can control, I do control, and temperature is a big one. We come up with many flavors, which is the beauty of naturally leavened bread. The sky’s the limit of possibilities.”
Red Hen makes two varieties of 100% whole rye, including the unique Sprouternickel — made with certified organic whole rye flour, sprouted organic spelt and rye berries, and organic sunflower seeds.
Other flavorful breads are the Crossett Hill batard, made entirely with local wheat and rye, and their signature Mad River Grain, “a veritable orchestra of grains and seeds” featuring wheat flour, sunflower seeds, steel-cut oats, flax seed meal, brown flax seeds, heirloom cornmeal, whole rye chops, whole sesame seeds, and golden flax seeds.
“We’re coming up with endless varieties, and we’re doing it through the process,” George says. “We joke sometimes that we’re yeast farmers because we have to feed our starter twice a day. How we manage that living thing, how we feed it, changes its flavors entirely.”
George says that the local grain movement continues to gain popularity, similar to the soaring interest among consumers in local breweries and local cheesemakers. “And we should consider ourselves fortunate that we don’t have to spend the kind of money on expensive equipment that a brewer or cheesemaker does,” he adds. “We can fairly easily manage the variables.”