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It takes a village baker

At Hungry Ghost, people come for bread but stay for the company

Email|Print| Text size + By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / September 21, 2005

NORTHAMPTON -- Hungry Ghost Bread is to most bakeries what a home-built hot rod is to the family car. From the traditional French batard to the loaf made with spelt and camomile flowers, all of baker Jonathan Stevens's handmade breads are dark and sour with blistery crusts and an open crumb. They're rugged and beautiful in the same gnarly way that an old farmer's hands are. According to Stevens, a good loaf has an identity. ''I'm interested in bread that's been around long enough to develop a personality and a depth of flavor -- bread that gets to know itself before it gets to know your mouth," says the Montreal native.

The year-and-a-half-old Hungry Ghost, whose center is a giant wood-burning masonry oven edged with tiles hand-painted by local kindergartners, has become the village meeting place here. Customers who stop by become regulars, and Stevens is always up for a chat -- about what's going on in the town, politics, poetry, and music. In a squat ivy-covered brick building on the fringes of Smith College, the bakery offers loaves of the sort that might have been made by peasants centuries ago. They contain four basic ingredients: organic flour (wheat berries in one of the loaves come from a grower in neighboring Gill), sourdough starters, water, and sea salt.

This weekend, the bakery will host its second annual ''Wonder Not! Bread Festival" with other local growers and artisans (see Page E4), a larger version of the informal Friday night open houses that Stevens and his partner of four years, Cheryl Maffei, host now.

The 43-year-old Stevens, loose and lanky with wiry muscles and hair twisted back in a wispy bun, is at the bakery most days from early morning until long past dark. ''I don't even have time to remember to go to sleep at night," he says. The baker is shaping and slashing loaves, humming along to John Coltrane -- CDs are slipped into an old boom box -- and with a long wooden peel, pulling batches of hot bread from the oven. He taps the bottom of every finished loaf to hear the characteristic hollow sound of baked bread.

It might be a rosemary round, semolina with fennel seeds,8-grain bread, rye, raisin, and, on Fridays, challah. On Sundays you can often find scones; other days, jam flower cookies. This time of year you might see an apple gallette, or other rustic pastries.

The wood oven gives all the breads and confections a heartier crust, and because the breads are handmade, every batch is slightly different. ''With this kind of oven there are so many variables," says Stevens. ''It's just like the sourdough. You couldn't add more variables even if you wanted to, but that's what makes the bread interesting. You know, people want this so-called artisan bread, but they always want it to look perfect and look exactly the same as it did the day before. That's just impossible when you're baking with wood and dealing with organic flour and wild yeasts."

His dough rests overnight in the large walk-in cooler to develop flavor. What he's trying to do is offer the right balance of crust and crumb -- the tender part of the bread. ''It's just like what candy makers have been working on forever," he explains, ''that wonderful sensual feeling of biting into something crunchy and breaking through to something soft."

While he's baking, Maffei is tending to everything else. A passionate cook and the daughter of a veteran Boston cop, she strolls from the woodpile to the counter, fires the oven, and carefully stacks baked loaves on a display rack. Where Stevens is frenetic, she is steady. She also enjoys the hectic pace of the bakery. ''I grew up in a big family with big meals," says the Roxbury native. ''There was always room for one more at the table, and no one ever wanted to leave. It was such a beautiful thing, and it's that same spirit of generosity that we're trying to create at this place." In Buddhist theology, the hungry ghost is the spirit of insatiable desire, an invisible presence for whom a compassionate place is set at the dining table.

The story of the bakery sounds like a fairy tale. In the early 1990s, Stevens, then a musician, taught himself to bake while he was a stay-at-home dad on Peaks Island in Maine's Casco Bay. A few years later, he installed a wood-fired brick oven in the basement of a straw-bale house he built in Leverett and spent three and a half years baking bread for natural food stores and farm stands.

In 2002, Stevens began working with Nuestros Raices (''our roots"), a community development agency in Holyoke, to build El Jardin, a high-volume wholesale bakery. The baker brought his client list to El Jardin, built a wood-burning oven, and trained members of the community to bake and market bread. Last year, 27-year-old Neftali Duran, a former employee, bought the bakery and now sells bread all over the Pioneer Valley.

Maffei, 45, who had once owned 1369, when it was a jazz club in Cambridge's Inman Square, was working as the director of an alternative preschool in the Pioneer Valley, where Stevens sent his kids. The two started a friendship, but after a few years began talking about combining their families (Maffei has two girls and Stevens two boys from previous marriages).

Their dream was to build a bakery together, but neither had any money. Maffei's mother lent them about $28,000, from what Maffei calls her ''stack of 20s," and they raised another $8,000 by selling ''bread futures"-- gift certificates for friends and loyal customers to purchase as much as a few years' worth of bread in advance.

As soon as the Hungry Ghost opened, the bakery attracted the locals and over the past year has become a place for the lively conversation usually reserved for a neighborhood pub. On Fridays, when Maffei and Stevens bake late into the evening, they leave the door open, and friends drop by to drink wine and feast on Maffei's sublime thin-crusted pizzas.

Seth Dunn, a Northampton social worker, stops in for a couple of loaves of challah on Fridays. ''You know, in the old days people went to the village bakery. They went there to gather," he says. ''These days, most bread, even good bread, is made in factories. But here the bread is made by hand. I have a relationship with my baker. I can come in, talk politics, have a good kvetch -- and then eat bread."

Northampton journalist Sarah Buttenwieser comes by with her son Ezekiel, a precocious 10-year-old devoted to the rosemary bread. ''Whenever I walk into this place I take a deep breath and just think what a whole bunch of baloney the whole Atkins thing is," she says.

At the end of the night, the exhausted Stevens is still willing to philosophize about his work. ''You know, it's just bread, and we work really hard to make it," he says. ''It's too bad that some people think of good bread as some kind of exalted necessity, as if it were just an accessory for the good life. This bread isn't precious, it's not a work of art or a prop for a fashion shoot. It's just wholesome peasant food, the same stuff made for centuries by barefoot people who never even washed their hands. Really, I mean, you know, it's like they say -- bread is the staff of life."

SEMOLINA-FENNELhas a licorice flavor from fennel seeds; it contains semolina and white flours.

RYE is baker Maffei's favorite, a dense little loaf made with half rye and half white flour.

SPELTWITHC AMOMILEmixes ancient spelt flour, a kind of wheat, with aromatic flowers.

ROSEMARY tastes piney from the dried herb; made with white flour. Maffei likes to grill slices.

BATARD is a simple French bread that looks like a shorter, chubbier baguette.

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