La Farm Bakery demystifies artisan bread

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When you ask a French master baker what constitutes good bread, be prepared to get the long-form answer. But to sum up, Lionel Vatinet, owner of La Farm Bakery, Cary, N.C., says that all good bread has a foundation in proper fermentation.

“The main characteristic of good bread is what type of fermentation you choose,” he says. “It’s not just the mix of flours you choose that will affect the flavor profile, but how you use preferments and respect fermentation–poolish, or liquid or stiff levain, natural versus commercial yeast. Fermentation brings different flavor profiles; it’s how you use it.”

La Farm sells an average of 1,000 loaves per day, with 80 percent going to retail customers. The bakery also offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as pastries and tarts, though Vatinet notes with a laugh, “I’m a bread baker.”

The bakery produces 15 different styles of breads and more than 20 seasonal breads using direct and indirect production methods. Direct breads, such as ciabatta, baguettes and white pan bread, are mixed and baked the same day, often using a combination of commercial and natural leavening. Indirect breads, including La Farm’s signature sourdough, 100% Carolina Ground (locally milled) whole wheat and rye, take up to a few days to produce, using a range of preferments. La Farm is currently using locally milled rye and whole wheat flour in several of its breads, but it hopes to eventually switch all products to locally milled flour.

The 5-lb. La Farm signature sourdough boule takes 72 hours to produce. It starts with a liquid levain that’s mixed into the dough, made with white flour and locally milled whole wheat flour. The dough is bulk fermented for three to four hours, divided, shaped and put in the cooler to ferment for another 12 to 15 hours before it’s baked at 450°F in a stone hearth oven. The resulting bread–an homage to Vatinet’s French heritage–has a subtle acidity with a moist, cobwebby crumb and deeply caramelized crust.

Vatinet began his baking career at age 16 as an apprentice at France’s artisan baking guild, Les Compagnons du Devoir. After teaching at the San Francisco Baking Institute, consulting around the world and coaching Team USA to a gold medal at the 1999 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, Vatinet and his wife Missy founded La Farm Bakery that same year. Although he relishes the traditional techniques he learned in France, Vatinet says Americans’ penchant for innovation has allowed him to be creative.

“When you come from a traditional background, people put so much of a barrier on creativity,” he says. “When you have a combination of both, it’s magical.”

What resulted from the ability to innovate have been such top-selling breads as asiago parmesan, cinnamon raisin pecan walnut and Belgian white chocolate mini baguettes.

Because he’s a teacher, Vatinet is hard-pressed to not find teaching moments as both a baker and a business owner. He usually prefers employees come to him with no previous baking experience. “What is great for somebody new who comes to us is we use so many different techniques, levain and yeasted doughs, many mixing methods, double hydration on some breads,” he says. “We also encourage people to be creative and share their knowledge.”

Every day in the bakery is a learning opportunity for customers, with Vatinet hosting tastings, classes and demonstrations on a regular basis. He also just finished his first book, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker–Seven Steps to Making Great Bread, available this fall.

“Constantly we educate,” he says. “We are always providing samples. We want people to understand what fermentation means. We show people how to taste the bread using their five senses. They need to squeeze it so they can smell it, look at the inside–it can be dense or open structured. What I love here in the United States is that people are eager to learn.”

Source: Modern Baking