Bread, for humans, is kind of a big deal. While it may be anathema to every paleo, low-carb diet and South Beach regime the world of fad diets can provide, human beings have proliferated throughout the world in large part due to our close relationship with grain. And for humans in the western part of the world, anyway, those grains largely take the form of warm, crusty baked discs and loaves. But the bread of the modern world is not necessarily the bread we ate for the first several thousand years of our existence — bread of the industrial age is often a blindingly white, substanceless shadow if its former self.
If you want to taste the bread of your ancestors, go back in time with Taos-based bakery Wild Leaven, where owner Andre Kempton uses old-fashioned techniques and carefully sourced grains to create the kind of bread you actually want to eat daily.
Kempton has a background in cooking — he studied at the Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program and has done his time in various kitchens around Santa Fe, including La Boca, and ran the school lunch program at Monte del Sol Charter School for two years. His mastery of bread began with a five-year apprenticeship at Cloud Cliff in Santa Fe, studying under owner (and master baker) Willem Malten.
“[Malten] taught me everything I know, all the fundamentals of fermentation and breadmaking,” Kempton says. Kempton then struck out on his own, opening Wild Leaven Bakery in Taos roughly five years ago.
Wild Leaven produces roughly 10 varieties of bread, selling them at its bakery and cafe in Taos and at the Taos Farmers Market. Most are available in Santa Fe at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe or, as of the last month, at La Montañita Co-op. The most basic loaf is the Sangre de Cristo sourdough, tangy and golden and chewy. Wild Leaven also does that same sourdough base with rye, molasses and fennel added to it, a bread with New Mexico green and red chiles and mozzarella cheese, and a particularly nutty, earthy loaf with quinoa and sunflower seeds. They also do one gluten-free bread with buckwheat and millet bound with chia and flax seeds.
Wild Leaven makes bread using longer fermentation times at cooler temperatures (about 24 to 38 hours), an old-fashioned breadmaking process that allows the yeast and sourdough culture to break down the gluten in the grains, which results in bread with a lower glycemic index that’s also said to be easier to digest. The breads are leavened with a mother sourdough culture that is a combination of Kempton’s own and a culture he got from Malten at Cloud Cliff.
“In the bread process, the fungus and the bacteria are really the champions of the breadmaking process,” he says. “They’re the ones who create the flavor, cause the CO2 to make the bread rise, and break down the protein and gluten into smaller, more digestible particles. The baking process is all about learning how to use the microorganisms and how to, in a sense, corral them to do what you want to do. … Over the years, I’ve figured out techniques on how to save labor and bake breads that are kind of similar to how the ancient Egyptians baked breads — they’re probably the first sourdough bakers on record.”
For example, he mixes his doughs in big troughs by hand instead of using mixers.
“We then use really wet, hydrated doughs because you can’t hand-mix 80 pounds of a dry dough,” he says. The combination of long fermentation and wetter dough results in a chewy, dense loaf with beautifully even air pockets and surprising lightness of crumb. “The bread is very dense but not heavy — partially because everything is hand mixed,” he says. “And the fact that it ferments for so long gives it extra stickiness and sourness.”
Wild Leaven also produces two varities of vollkornbrot, a traditionally dense German rye bread. Kempton makes his regular vollkornbrot with rye flour, sprouted rye and oats, and his ubervollkornbrot with the addition of pecans, raisins and sunflower seeds, both of which you can find at the co-op and Cheesemongers (vollkornbrot is divine with cheese).
Several Santa Fe restaurants use Kempton’s bread in their sandwiches and toast: Iconik Coffee Roasters, Bodega Prime and Fire & Hops. And if you find yourself in Taos, you can visit the bakery at 216 Paseo del Pueblo Norte (2 years old in February), where you can sample its house-made French baguette and challah, or try the pastries (croissants, chocolate croissants, Danish, etc.) churned out by Wild Leaven pastry chefs Pam Mussett, Eden Colibri and assistant baker Brandon Hethcox.
Kempton also bakes some single-grain breads, like a 100 percent rye flour sourdough bread and a 100 percent whole wheat sourdough. He’s also working on doing single-grain breads made of spelt, Kamut (aka Khorasan wheat, an Egyptian ancient grain discovered in the tombs of the Pharaohs) and barley. Though he buys most of his grains locally (he gets wheat from Northern New Mexico and rye and quinoa from southern Colorado), Kempton has been experimenting with heritage grains since the bakery’s inception, flirting with ingredients like heirloom spelt, black Nile barley, farro and einkorn.
“That’s the direction I’m heading, doing whole-grain, single-grain bread so you can really taste the unique character of each grain,” Kempton says. “My plan is to use more and more heritage grains and heirloom grains.”
Kempton also hopes to get to the point where he can purchase grains from farmers who use regenerative agricultural practices — he is, in a way, as big a soil geek as he is a bread geek.
“There’s a big soil health movement that’s starting to spread, and they’re all about building soil through diverse species of cover crop, rotational grazing of animals, no-till agriculture, no chemicals, no pesticides,” he says. “You’re farming the soil, and then it’ll grow anything that you plant into it. … For me, there’s a connection that’s grown in that kind of soil and bread that’s made with that type of grain. That’s where I see the bakery moving. Promoting the natural life in the soil, just like we’re trying to promote the natural life in the baking process. Soils and breads are quite similar, actually.”
IF YOU GO
Wild Leaven Bakery in Taos, 216 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and Andre Kempton sells bread on Saturdays at the Taos Farmers Market. In Santa Fe, find it at the La Montañita Co-op and Cheesemongers of Santa Fe.