The Long Rise of Alexandra’s Bread
The Main Street baker’s artisanal secret? Flour, water, salt, and yeast — and keeping it simple.
The racks at Alexandra’s Bread in Gloucester are almost empty at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Only three rosemary-dusted focaccia remain, one of which baker and owner Jon Hardy slices into. It’s the beginning of my What Makes Good Bread lesson.
“Good bread has a range of textures,” Hardy says. “The holes [or ‘cells’] are a range of sizes. The crust of a good loaf adds another entirely different taste and texture. This makes the bread not just one thing in your mouth,” Hardy explains. “It’s interesting to eat all alone — you don’t need a bunch of ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes and shitake mushrooms.”
We’re looking closely now at the microscopic detail of the sliced bread. With the tip of the knife Hardy points to the wall of a quarter-inch cell. I can see that the bread there is meaty with a sheen on the surface. And definitely golden.
“Good bread should be smooth and almost melt in your mouth. The walls of the cells, the bread part, should be thick but have a translucent quality of amber. You want it to be slippery on your tongue, not pasty and not grainy.”
When the flour’s starch is metabolized by the yeast in a long rise the result is that silken mouth-feel. A quick rise leaves grains of starch, and a grainy taste.
Hardy chose a kid’s bubble bath to explain how a slow rise affects a bread’s wall-to-cell structure. “You start the bath, pour in a little Mr. Bubble. If you stick your hand into the water and stir it up quickly, you get piles of tiny foamy bubbles fast. Or you can let the water run, let the foam rise slowly on its own, and get large, thick-walled bubbles.”
That’s what we’re after.
Hardy and his wife Alexandra Rhinelander own Alexandra’s Bread — “she has the better name,” Hardy explained — on Main Street in downtown Gloucester. The bakery is easy to miss. The storefront is in a strip that includes the Liquor Locker, Leonardo’s Pizzeria, and Salon One — not a block where one would be looking for five-star, hand-crafted foods. I’m guessing there are plenty of people in Gloucester who still haven’t tasted the flour-dusted tender cobble or the rich, zingy rye, but if Alexandra’s were in Boston, I’d make the drive. (There was a time when my daughter ate only cobbles, nothing else.)
Alexandra’s Bread is a purposefully small business, and that allows Hardy and Rhinelander to produce European-style breads (and American-style baked cookies) worthy of the basket on any Frenchman’s bicyclette.
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The couple met in the early 1990s. Hardy, who was an arts major at the University of Rochester, was in a Boston band called The Bags at the time. Rhinelander, a Georgetown grad, had been working at MIT Technology Review. They married, and decided to leave it all behind and head to Nova Scotia, where Rhinelander’s family had a summer home — a rustic arrangement of buildings that included a barn, a chicken coop, a fish store, an outhouse, and view of a cove. There, Hardy and Rhinelander sowed their bread making interests.
Hardy worked for a few weeks for French baker Didier Julien in their new community, but mostly the couple had lots of time to experiment in their own kitchen with flours, risings, and timing. As they fiddled with their home recipes, they became more and more interested in what just four ingredients — flour, water, salt, and yeast — could do. They began to see bread baking as a “skill” they could learn and turn into a business. In 1993, the couple came home and worked for three years at the Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline. In 1996, they began looking for a city, a street, a building in which to set up their own business.
Gloucester had already etched itself in both of their hearts.
Hardy grew up in Lexington, Mass., and his family kept a boat in Smith’s Cove when he was a kid. “Every kid came here in the 70s and 80s,” Hardy says of his Lexington community. Rhinelander’s family had deeper roots. Her great-grandfather, the Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia, spent summers on Eastern Point, offering sermons in the church on Middle Street when he was in town.
Rhinelander’s family thus found their second summer retreat. Her own family would stop in Gloucester to visit their Eastern Point grandmother on their way from their home in Maryland to that summer place on Nova Scotia. The young couple, looking to open a bakery and start a family, combed New England for just the right town to start their business, but Gloucester remained their ideal. “We never found a place we liked as much,” Hardy says.
Lucky for us, the slim, tin-tiled space on Main Street was available.
• • • • •
From the start, Hardy and Rhinelander were determined to keep things simple. They wanted to grow slowly and always be able to manage what they’d taken on — not burn out after two years. This meant it would always be just the two of them. Hardy bakes the bread and Rhinelander, along with running a fetching “local wares” business in the front of the shop, does all of the sweet baking: cranberry scones, three kinds of cookies, and double chocolate walnut biscotti every day.
As the week goes on, she offers more baked goods. As Hardy says, “people want a brownie on Tuesday. But by Friday, they need a brownie.” Sure enough, in the two hours I spent on Saturday learning my good bread lesson, I witnessed at least three people purchasing the day’s last cookies with trembling hands.
The recipes are all Alexandra’s Bread recipes, developed by Hardy and Rhinelander since their ovens first heated up. But Hardy says if anyone were to ever break in and steal their bread recipes, “it’d be a lousy score.” That zest to the rye, the crunch of the baguette is all in the technique — the mixing, the fermenting, the rises, the shaping, and the time.
“The recipes were designed around a desire to keep things simple. Minimal machinery, gadgets and gimmicks. Let the ingredients work at their own natural pace. Don’t rush the fermentation or the shaping of the dough. Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Hardy explained.
The only serious machinery in the bakery is a 1932 Hobart mixer and the Blodgett ovens from Vermont. Mostly, hands do the work.
Hardy makes about eight different breads a day. The ingredients list in each recipe is, again, ordinary: flour, water, salt, yeast. But perhaps the most important ingredient, Hardy taught me, is time.
He mixes up his four-to-five different doughs at about 2 in the afternoon. They ferment in a cool refrigerator, allowing an even slower rise, overnight. He arrives at the bakery between 4 and 5 the next morning, lifts off the plastic wrap to a great waft of yeasty alcohol, and starts shaping the loaves. After a couple more rises, they're baked, and start coming out of the oven around 9 a.m. That’s 19 hours start-to-finish.
For years, we’ve heard that the bread in France is better because of the flour. Hardy explained that French flour is made from “winter wheat” — seeds that are planted in the late fall, left in the fields as seedlings over the winter, and harvested in early summer. Like grapes whose flavor improves when grown in harsh conditions, winter wheat improves, too. It also has less protein than spring wheat, which means less gluten.
Gluten, the “scaffolding” for bread, has no flavor. If there’s more of something that doesn’t have any flavor, well, you get the idea.
Bread flour, by the way, according to Hardy, is not good flour for bread. It has too much gluten, and therefore little flavor. An all-purpose flour is a better household bread maker’s choice.
Most American flour is spring wheat, which germinates faster, ripens faster, and is therefore more economical, because it spends less times sitting around just being wheat, and more time participating in getting that loaf paid for. Although it’s more costly, Hardy insists on the slower winter wheat flour.
Hardy and Rhinelander have two sons who have been raised at the bakery: Henry, 17, who is off to Bates next year, and Owen, 15. Since they were very young, the boys have made appearances in the bakery on busy Saturday mornings. “It’s been a wonderful place to raise our boys. It’s a real community,” Rhinelander says of Gloucester. “We’ve met hundreds of people just by having a bakery on Main Street.”
And the community is grateful.
► Alexandra’s Bread, 265 Main St, Gloucester, (978) 281 3064. Open Tuesday – Saturday, 8:30am – 2pm.
Steve Marsel is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer in Somerville whose photographs have appeared in Rolling Stone, Time, Fortune, The New York Times Magazine, and Boston magazine. He likes flea markets, cats, and gin martinis.