Artisan Bread-makers in the Merrimack Valley
At once a relatively simple and incredibly important food nearly everywhere in the world, the story of bread is deeply intertwined with the story of humans as social beings; that we cannot truly “break bread” alone is exemplified in the art, literature, song, history and traditions of virtually every people and culture. Bread brought people together in the ancient world, and it brings people together now.
Cheryl Holbert, owner of Nomad Bakery in Derry, N.H., has built a thriving business around this principle. A New Jersey native with Persian and Jewish roots, Holbert worked as a journalist and studied art and tapestry design before teaching herself how to bake: “I started baking because my house felt empty. I was a journalist, busy. I had my own apartment. I was homesick. My Polish grandmother was an amazing baker; growing up, there was always bread on the table. Always. So I started to try to re-create that.”
Holbert immersed herself more and more in the history and craft of bread baking. “I started to make a place at the table for that interaction that only bread allows,” she recalls. “I was baking just for my family then, but I would stay up until 1 a.m., reading recipes, studying the bread of other cultures. I truly became smitten with the cultural importance of bread.” Eventually she began drawing on her training in tapestry to “handweave” loaves of challah with incredibly intricate designs that became a unique signature of sorts. After several years of increased demand for her work from family, friends and her community, and after formal training at the King Arthur Flour baking school in Vermont, in 2013, Holbert decided to leave her job at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., and commit to bread baking full time. “I felt like there was a path unlived in me,” she says. “And it was that passion for bread. I had to make a decision … and I chose bread.”
Since then, Holbert has continued to gain momentum. Along with her coveted challah, Nomad Bakery now produces various specialty ciabattas, three varieties of sourdough, barbari (a traditional Persian flatbread), and seasonal novelties such as Turkish bagels and spelt dark-chocolate-pecan cookies. Most products contain no more than five ingredients.
Holbert does all her baking at home — Nomad is a New Hampshire homestead food operation. She routinely sells her breads at the Derry Homegrown Farm & Artisan Market and at local establishments, such as The Grind Rail Trail Cafe in Derry, Benedikt Dairy in Goffstown and Restoration Cafe in Manchester. She also offers baking classes periodically, and is currently writing a book on challah design.
When asked what it is that makes bread such a special food to produce and share, Holbert says: “Connecting to things that have been a part of the world for so long is so important, especially in today’s political and cultural climate. Bread has a sensory value unlike anything else. In sharing bread, we’re reclaiming something. That is why I do it. It all comes full circle to the tables I sat at — bringing to my community that sense of belonging at the table, that sense of coming together.”
In Lowell, Purple Carrot Bread Co. co-founders Alaina and Doug Brackett are also artisan bread bakers, and their mission is to provide more people with authentic bread and real food. Like Holbert, baking wasn’t the couple’s first vocation. Doug, who was working as a restaurant manager, learned to bake while living above Five Loaves Bakery in Spencer, Mass. “I asked Doug one night, ‘Where can we get good bread?’ And when we couldn’t think of anywhere, we decided to make it ourselves,” Alaina recalls.
What started as a simple experiment slowly grew, as Alaina and Doug’s breads — which often include nothing more than water, salt, yeast and flour — gained popularity, and soon they began selling it at farmers markets. In April 2018, Purple Carrot Bread Co. opened its doors as a cafe and eatery on Merrimack Street in downtown Lowell. Impressively, every item on the menu is made from scratch, from hearty stews to salad dressings and condiments. “It isn’t necessarily easy to do this, and it’s incredibly time-consuming,” Alaina says of Purple Carrot’s “real food” philosophy. “But we do it because we believe in changing the process of how food should be made, and in changing the types of foods that should be available to people.”
Rustic breads are the heart of Purple Carrot’s menu. “Country Blonde” (a simple white bread), Kalamata olive, rosemary and garlic ciabatta, and “Seeded” (consisting of pumpkin, flax and sunflower seeds) are among the more popular offerings. “Many people notice a difference immediately in the taste and quality of our breads,” Alaina says when asked about the nuances of their products. “They start noticing how much sweeter supermarket breads are in comparison, or how much faster these breads will become stale if not cared for properly, due to the lack of chemicals and preservatives. It’s fun seeing that awareness grow in people that this is food. This is how it’s supposed to taste.”
For those seeking more sources of locally-crafted artisan breads and other baked goods in the Greater Merrimack Valley, Annarosa’s Bakery in Salisbury, presents a third option. Jane Kenny and Bill Malatesta, Annarosa’s owners, began baking bread in 2000, and have since expanded their production to include specialty pastries and savories. Their breads include organic seeded sourdough, Kalamata olive levain, organic rye vollkornbrot, cranberry brioche and many other interesting Old World staples.
Purple Carrot Bread Co.