THE aroma is unmistakable: baking bread. Fresh flour, yeast, water, and salt mingling in various stages of dough make one realize that it is not the bread, but the becoming of bread that's magical.
Here at the Saco Bay Bakery, in Saco, Maine, a staff of nine turns out 5,000 loaves of organic sourdough bread each week.
On this day, owner Don Stagg takes a visitor around the flour-foggy bakery, explaining each stage of breadmaking. Business, he remarks, is going well.
``It took off in a pretty big way,'' Mr. Stagg says, remembering that 5-1/2 years ago, the bakery made only 90 loaves a week. Now he plans to expand.
Stagg attended the Culinary Institute of America and served many apprenticeships in pastry and baking before starting up the Saco-based bakery. His reason for starting the business is simple. ``I had a love for bread,'' he says.
His is one of hundreds of small hearth-style bread bakeries in the United States that are reinventing the tradition and art of quality handshaped loaves.
Saco Bay's sourdough bread, baked in a two-ton, 70-year-old Italian stone-hearth oven, has a crispy crust and chewy-soft middle and is made without preservatives, fats, or oils.
At a time when factory giants churn out loaves by the millions, ``rustic bakers,'' ``village bakers,'' or ``artisan bakers'' are staging a comeback, in the name of wholesome good taste.
``There's more competition all the time,'' Stagg observes. These artisan bakers supply bread to food stores, restaurants, and neighbors.
Tom McMahon is president and founder of The Bread Bakers Guild of America. He started the guild last January to promote awareness of better bread baking. Within several months, 400 independent bakers signed up.
``No one can deny that better quality, more-nutritious bread is the strongest food trend in the country,'' says Mr. McMahon in the guild's recent newsletter. ``This trend is sweeping along with it breadmaking of differing styles: Some bakers are strictly organic, some emphasize whole grains, some use only natural leavening, and some rely heavily upon ethnic, old-world traditions.''
In a phone interview, McMahon said that growth is in natural, honest, quality breads, not unlike the ones he makes in his bakery ``Breadworks,'' serving the Pittsburgh area. Why the interest now?
Chefs have done a tremendous job in improving food quality; they've upgraded American cuisine to high standards. So, it makes sense that bread should follow, says McMahon.
Also, with people cutting back on opulence in the 90s, ``bread is the cheapest gourmet food possible.'' At $2 or so, a loaf of high-quality bread is an inexpensive extravagance, McMahon says. Plus, the nutritional trends and government guidelines promote more reliance on bread than ever before, he points out.
Anyone who has ever had fresh bread right out of the oven understands its appeal. Forget the overloaded grain breads of the 60s - when a day-old loaf could be punted from the 40-yard line. Today's bakery breads are new breeds, carefully crafted.
From the San Francisco Bay area, Wendy Kelts, retail manager for Grace Baking Company, reports that hearth-style bread bakeries have been steadily growing for the last 10 years.
``Not only has our business grown, but other companies that have joined in have been successful and grown. When you look at the total market, it seems to be really booming,'' she says.
Grace Baking company emphasizes variety, featuring more than 40 different types of bread, including the popular sourdough, pugliese, a traditional Italian bread; and an organic sourdough-walnut bread. Home-baking resurgence
Ken Haedrich, author of ``Festive Baking with Whole Grains'' sees two things happening: More good bread is available from this group of artisans; and this, in turn, is awakening people's interest in making their own. (See related story on next page.)
Detailing the secrets for home cooks is Dan Leader, a master baker who has just come out with an instructional cookbook ``Bread Alone'' (co-authored with Judith Blahnik, William Morrow and Company, 332 pp., $25), named after his upstate New York bakery.
``The enthusiasm has been phenomenal,'' says Mr. Leader, who adds that phones ring off the hook whenever he does radio interviews. The bread trend is associated with other lifestyle-comfort trends toward interests such as gardening, fixing up homes, and spending more time with families, Leader says. ``Bread is just a simple kind of satisfying no-nonsense food.''
In addition to wanting good bread, people like the idea of going to the local bakery - or boulangerie, Leader says. More and more, supermarkets are opening their own ``scratch'' bakeries as well.
While Leader acknowledges the convenience of bakery bread, he's a strong promoter of at-home baking because people can enjoy the process. ``What can you make at home that costs you 30 cents and is as immensely satisfying as a freshly baked loaf from your oven?'' he asks.
Richard Bourdon, owner of Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, Mass., has been making his hearth-style organic bread for 15 years. ``The trick is to find the quality that can't be replicated in factory-style bread,'' says Mr. Bourdon, who wants people to know that he teaches bread-baking ``for free.''
Bourdon contends that his view of the big picture is realistic: Rustic, small-bakery bread will probably not be ``the next big thing,'' but the demand will always be there. ``I'm not going to feed the masses,'' he says. ``Those who like it, buy it.''
To say that such artisan bakers take their profession seriously would be an understatement. They see bread-baking as a science, an art, a mission, and a talent that takes years to learn and should be passed along.
They talk in terms of flour gluten, temperature, fermentation, elasticity, hearth fire, the weather, and more. One of the most satisfying aspects of baking bread, they say, is taking a finished loaf of bread and handing it to a customer.
So puristic is their approach to baking, that a few handfuls of artisan bakers - including Leader, Bourdon, and Stagg - are baking not only all-natural, but organic breads - calling for the purest ingredients possible.
Take the list of ingredients for Saco Bay Bakery's Black Forest Raisin Sourdough loaf: stone-ground organic whole-grain flour (wheat and rye), sifted stone-ground organic whole-wheat flour, purified water, organic raisins, cinnamon, natural mineral salt. ``Organic'' is part of a lifestyle Stagg believes in, he says.
Leader says the organic ``movement'' has been slower to catch on than he expected, but he sees that specialty growing. One interesting note is that General Mills has started fulfilling requests for organic flour from small bakeries.
Artisan bakers say they expect their numbers, like their breads, to rise, making competition stiffer.
Even ``the big guys'' will enter the ``good bread'' picture in copycat ways. (Wonder Bread has come out with a ``light'' line that includes sourdough, nine-grain, and soft French.)
But the attitude remains: May the best bread will win. ``This is not going to be a passing fad,'' says Ms. Kelts of Grace Baking Company. ``People aren't going to suddenly say `Oh, good bread isn't going to be in style anymore.' Once people find out about it, they're going to stick with it.''