Plainfield, Vt. — When it comes to baking bread, Jules and Helen Rabin didn't write the book, they built the oven. Not just your ordinary oven, mind you. We're looking at 75 tons of fieldstone -- a wood-fired, 9-foot-wide, 16-foot-high oven. The dark, imposing, cavernous affair stands apart from the Rabins' home (which they also built) in what is referred to as the ``bakehouse.''
Upland Bakers, as the Rabins' breadbaking operation is named, is located on a gentle knoll just a few short miles from the hustle-bustle of downtown Plainfield (population somewhere around 800 on a busy weekend).
``It was Helen who did most of the actual masonry work. I did most of the schlepping,'' Mr. Rabin says in a proud, decidedly pro-feminist tone. ``We had never built anything like it before, and more or less went on the audacity of ignorance.''
The Rabins got fired up by the oven idea while visiting a friend at the noted Gandhian commune L'Arche, in the south of France, back in 1971.
``After 10 days of vegetarian meals and wonderful bread, we finally saw the oven on our last day,'' he says, leaning back against the gray stones of the oven, still warm from the previous day's baking. ``The oven there was very similar to those unearthed in Pompeii and ancient Rome.''
Mr. Rabin, a professor of anthropology at the time, was especially interested in the historical aspects of the oven.
``Back about 4,000 years, and up until the last 100 years, bread was quite literally the staff of life for the peasants,'' he explains. ``We got a rough drawing of the oven from a Lebanese engineer who was also at the commune. Helen and I thought maybe we'd build one like it someday, for the fun of it.''
The day came sometime in 1975 and continued right into 1976.
Helen Rabin found just the right kind of flat fieldstones conveniently deposited on the banks of nearby Onion River by the last glacier that passed through town. ``We burned out the engine of our Volkswagen bus just hauling the stones here,'' Mr. Rabin moans.
The behemoth oven has more than met the needs of the Rabins and their two growing daughters. At first they invited friends and neighbors to bring their own bread dough to bake. But, Mr. Rabin explains, that became rather impractical. Also impractical was the fact that the oven was at that point free-standing. ``It wasn't enclosed in the bakehouse at first. That meant on rainy days we'd have to carry the bread dough from kitchen to oven under an umbrella.''
``Helen, who is a real smart cookie,'' Jules says with a wink, ``developed the recipes based on a European-type bread.'' What Mrs. Rabin came up with was a bread of flour, water, leavening, and salt. No milk, sugar, honey, fat, or preservatives or additives. What's most unique is that the leavening agent is sourdough. ``We're still working off the sourdough starter we bought from California years ago,'' Mr. Rabin says.
As he explains it, ``99.999 percent of the bread baked in this country is leavened with yeast'' (``baker's yeast,'' he calls it). ``Very little sourdough bread is baked today because it takes so much longer to rise. That's why commercial bakers dropped it in place of quicker-rising `yeasted breads.' ''
The bread here at Upland Bakers takes from seven to eight hours from mixing until it comes out of the oven. One advantage other than taste, says Mr. Rabin, is that sourdough inhibits the growth of mold so the bread has a longer shelf life. ``Campers and fishermen take our rye and wheat breads into the woods for weeks,'' he says. ``It keeps as long as it doesn't get moist.''
And it's not just campers and fishermen who come calling. The business now supports the Rabin family full time. Some 600 loaves of bread leave the bakery every week. These are all hand-shaped, ``hearth baked'' loaves, rather than pan-baked. Hard round loaves of rye, whole wheat, light wheat, pain de campagne (country-style), and French bread. All the bread is mixed and kneaded by Helen -- with the help of a machine the size of a cement mixer. She also helps shape the loaves. All the actual baking is done by Jules.
For themselves and a few friends, the Rabins also bake matzo on occasion. ``It's not kosher for Passover,'' Mr. Rabin is quick to explain. They're also working on a ``dynamite pita bread that you can pour pea soup into, and it will still hold together,'' he says proudly.
Mr. Rabin is responsible for firing up the oven with slabs of pine, spruce, and hemlock from a local lumber mill for several hours before sweeping out the oven to make room for the day's baking. ``I start the baking at about 5:30 in the morning and finish about 9 at night. But there's plenty of time in between to snooze and read. But it's just the two of us. No outside help. No one around to get on our nerves except each other,'' he says with a Woody Allen grin, peering over his glasses.
The response of customers has been overwhelming, but not enough to convince the couple to ``go for a killing,'' Mr. Rabin insists. They bake only three days a week and do a lot of cleaning up and maintainance the rest of the week. As the oven cools off, neighbors sometimes bring pots of beans to bake. Or the Rabins may slide in a batch of cookies, perhaps a stew to slow-cook, or even a turkey.
The breads are sold locally for the most part, although some find their way to fine restaurants outside the area.
``Our prices are very competitive,'' Mr. Rabin says . ``It's not priced just for doctors and lawyers. Actually, I'm a bit of a Marxist. I'd really like to charge the doctors and lawyers $6 a loaf and the local farmers 60 cents.''
For all the accolades and letters of appreciation showered on the Rabins, only one slightly faded, yellow-lined, hand-printed letter is on view, stuck to the bakehouse wall with tape. It's from a four-year-old neighborhood boy. It reads: ``Dear Helen and Jules, I love your bread. It is chewy and hard. Love, Richard.''
``I never knew when we started we'd be so successful, or we'd be doing this for so long,'' Mr. Rabin muses. ``I'm beginning to get a little tired,'' he adds, grabbing a horizontal wooden pole hanging from the ceiling and chinning himself.
Somehow I get the feeling Jules Rabin will be up with the chickens tomorrow, stoking the oven.