Doug Rountree of Murray Hollow Bakers makes Granny Omi’s line a labor of love
SHUSHAN, N.Y. — Along the Vermont-New York line, the turn off Route 313 onto Murray Hollow Road is well-marked, but it isn’t long before we’re wondering whether we’re lost. As dusk approaches, the sun is dipping behind heavily wooded mountains and the dirt road that snakes its way to baker Doug Rountree’s home goes on and on. We round a bend and see a tiny red building that might be a wood cutter’s hut in a Grimm brothers’ tale. A plume of wood smoke rises from the chimney of Murray Hollow Bakers. A sign reads, “The Doug-h House.’’
In an area where artisan enterprise and quirky personalities are thick underfoot, Rountree stands out. He bakes at night, all alone, in a wood-fired brick oven he built himself. His breads, with their chewy crust and tender, tangy crumb, have a devoted following among small grocery and specialty shops in Washington County and in nearby Vermont towns. During the warmer months his wife, Nancy Conety-Rountree, a native of neighboring Salem, N.Y., sets up at one farmers’ market after another, calling it quits only when it becomes too cold to stand outside (this year, that meant the middle of last month).
Inside his workshop, the snowy-haired Rountree explains how five years ago, he left the kitchens of local inns after a career with the Westin Hotel chain, and built the oven that takes up two-thirds of the building, adapting a set of prints he purchased for $350 from someone in California. From it, three nights a week, he draws hearty, old-timey loaves he sells under the name Granny Omi’s. “Never had a business plan. Knew what I wanted to do. Never worried about it,’’ says the 62-year-old former chef.
The shy baker and his gregarious, sweet-tempered wife, perfectly suited to be the public face of the little company, met at the Equinox Resort & Spa in nearby Manchester, Vt., when both worked there, and married in 2001. They share a home 50 yards from the bakehouse and run the business the old-fashioned way: without recourse to the Internet or mail order. He bakes, she delivers and sells.
Six hours earlier, Rountree had built a fire inside his oven using hardwood he cuts and stacks by the bakehouse door. The dough is made with a starter, flour from a Buffalo mill, salt from the Dead Sea, and well water. When he cracks the oven door, it reveals a bed of coals glowing wickedly under a dome of refractory brick several feet thick. Rountree, a West Texan by birth, who despite his chef’s jacket, checked trousers, and kitchen clogs has the air of a Custer-era cavalry scout, deftly rakes coals and ash into a hod, then sweeps the oven clean. “Got to move quickly to keep the heat in,’’ he says. A gauge reads 675 degrees, but there’s plenty to do before the first loaves are introduced, and timing is critical.
Shaped loaves must be fully, but not overly, proofed just as the oven reaches the ideal temperature, its bricks “soaked’’ with heat sufficient to bring every boule, batard, and family loaf to the finish his customers expect. Among those he cannot disappoint: brothers at the nearby New Skete Greek Orthodox monastery. Loaves destined for these pious fans are imprinted with a liturgical motto. He makes wheat loaves in 1-pound-10-ounce and 3-pound “deli’’ sizes. He tops focaccia with a fennel-onion mixture, and rolls more dough in organic sesame seeds. He makes 100 loaves of bread a night and sells them for $3.50 to $6.50.
With one eye on an alarm clock perched on a timber overhead, Rountree goes into furious action, cutting, weighing, massaging, and pinching the dough on a granite-topped table. He sets balls into little wicker baskets called bannetons and nestles batards — diminutive footballs — into pleats in the coarse, heavily-floured linen sheet known as a couche.
Many bits and pieces in the bakehouse are from previous lives, including a small exhibit of Rountree’s photography. The chandelier that bathes the atelier in a warm, antique glow was salvaged from his grandmother’s farmhouse (the Granny Omi of his label, “a wonderful cook who never slowed down from the time her feet hit the floor,’’ says her grandson). Door and window hardware were originally in the Missouri house he inherited from his parents. Money from its sale paid for construction of the bakehouse (he had a little help from a local mason) in 2003, which cost around $42,000. It took two years to set up, but looks centuries-old.
The flour he’s using, from North Country Farms in Watertown, N.Y., is something new and responds differently than the King Arthur Sir Galahad flour he had been using; both recipes and technique require tweaking. “It’s got a wheaty flavor that will thrill you,’’ he says of the new flour, and considers it inspiring to have met “the guy who actually grew the grain.’’
An Air Force brat, Rountree did a culinary program at Clark College in Washington State on the GI Bill, after returning from service in Vietnam, where he was assigned to an aircraft carrier as a cook and worked 12-hour shifts, days then nights. He worked around the country with Westin and was part of the team that opened the Westin Copley Place in 1983. He seems a peaceful soul, but admits he wasn’t always. “I wasn’t gentle when I was a chef. If you are, people run all over you. It’s like being a policeman. You can’t be too nice.’’
The old intensity emerges as Rountree rolls his proofing shelves over to the oven, dusts his peel with wheat bran, sets loaves on the peel and slashes them with a razor. When it’s time to slide breads into the oven, he holds the handle of the razor in his teeth, quickly opens the door, tips them off the peel, then begins again. Minutes later, the piratical gleam returns as he prepares to extract the finished breads. You can hear them crackle as he transfers them to a deep basket.
“Move to the sides please,’’ he orders visitors, hoisting a 7-foot wooden peel. “I don’t want to hurt you.’’
Murray Hollow Bakers, Murray Hollow Road, Shushan, N.Y., 518-854-9790. Available at Wayside Country Store, 3307 Route 313 W, Arlington, Vt., 802-375-2792; Market Wagon, 1896 Harwood Hill Road, Bennington, Vt., 802-379-8375; Mango 29 Deli, 1023 Route 29, Schuylerville, N.Y., 518-507-6174; Yushak’s Supermarket, 3 Main St., Shushan, N.Y., 518-854-7519.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at email@example.com.