Hungry Ghost Bread

by Kristen Wilmer, CISA Program Assistant, in CISA’s August 2012 enews

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Click here for an interview and more from Hungry Ghost.

At Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton there are no secrets.  As a customer you can watch as freshly risen loaves get turned out of their floured rattan baskets into the big wood-fired brick oven that stands tall in the center of the one-room bakery.  The smell of fresh bread lingers and you can feel the warmth of the brick – in winter it feels inviting and in summer it makes you appreciate the bakers who withstand such heat all day.  If your timing is right you might even meet the farmer – Gene L’Etoile of Four Star Farms in Northfield – who grows the bakery’s whole wheat, mills it fresh and delivers it weekly.  Hungry Ghost’s co-owners Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei know their customers’ faces and names, and increasingly they are also building connections with their farmers.

“What’s really cool is that now we get to use local flour every day,” says Jonathan.  “That’s something that was unimaginable a few years ago, because it didn’t exist.”  Three of the loaves at Hungry Ghost – Double Wheat, Trinity and Raisin bread – are made completely from locally grown wheat.  There are also crackers made from spelt grown in Hadley, and flat breads that incorporate other local ingredients like potatoes and beets.  Local flours are used in Hungry Ghost’s other loaves as well, and Jonathan and Cheryl are always looking for ways to use more.  As time goes on, says Jonathan, “it would be really exciting to use a higher and higher percentage of local.”

To do so, the bakery will need its own mill, which Jonathan and Cheryl are hoping to build this fall.  They plan to build a mill similar to one they saw during a trip to France – with stones that rotate slowly, so as not to heat the flour, and a silk screen to remove bran.   Having their own mill will enable them to separate more of the bran out of the flour, so they can use more local flour in their lighter loaves.  Commercial white flour has the germ removed along with the bran to improve shelf life.  Removing the nutritious germ is not necessary for the bread to rise well, however, and when flour can be milled on a daily basis, shelf life is irrelevant.  Hungry Ghost’s mill will enable them to remove only the bran while retaining the flavorful germ.

Jonathan and Cheryl clearly are looking to do more than fill bellies with their bread – they strive to inspire their customers.  “If you like good bread, you’ve got to do it yourself,” says Jonathan.  Cheryl grew up in a family where good food and coming together at meals were both highly valued, and it’s not hard to see how these values have shaped their bakery.  More than just their bread inspires – so do their friendliness, clear love of the work they do, and poetry.  “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone,” reads a sign on the wall of the bakery.  Each time Jonathan and Cheryl print a new menu they include at the top an original poem, about family, baking, life, love…

“It really does start with the seed, and that food is about relationships,” says Jonathan as he talks about the regular give and take he enjoys with farmers and customers.  “The circle is complete, and that feels very authentic and important.”  Consistent with their desire to build connections, Cheryl and Jonathan are in the midst of planning their annual ‘Wonder Not! Bread’ Fest, held at the bakery every September: to celebrate local bread and local community.  The 2012 Bread Fest will be held on Sunday, Septembers 23rd from 11am-6pm, and will include plenty of music, honey, cheese, jam and produce vendors, and a puppet parade.  To celebrate the Fall Equinox and highlight connections between farming and eating, kids will be invited to plant a patch of winter wheat in front of the bakery.

Grain growing in New England has come a long way since Hungry Ghost got its start in 2004.  When Jonathan first called the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to express his interest in sourcing locally grown grain, he wasn’t taken seriously.  Though the first wheat in America was said to have been grown in Massachusetts around 1600, grain growing had long since moved west due to land and infrastructure limitations, and humid weather in the Northeast.  But as Pioneer Valley farmers slowly reintroduce grains to their repertoire, Jonathan says, “wheat is proving hardier than expected” to Massachusetts weather, and bakeries like Hungry Ghost are helping establish a market for the grains that are grown.  CISA’s ‘Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown’ campaign has in turn helped Hungry Ghost find markets for their local bread.  “Definitely the whole ‘Local Hero’ thing made it twenty times easier to use local flour,” says Jonathan.

Cheryl and Jonathan hope that local grain production will continue its come back.  “We’re still a grain-based culture,” says Jonathan.  “No matter how many burgers you eat, they’re still wrapped in bread.”  Jonathan still feels a twinge of remorse when passing by beautiful fields of rye cover crop in the Valley that are grown to preserve soil and nutrients between vegetable crops.  The vast majority will never be harvested, in part due to timing, but also partly due to lack of infrastructure and markets.  If recent trends continue, some might make their way into a Hungry Ghost loaf someday soon.

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