Horse bread. The name is not exactly appetizing. Its ingredient list might not make your mouth water, either: Each loaf includes field peas, sorghum, millet, mustard seed and camelina, an oil seed similar to flax.
And yet, it is delicious. Were it not for the peas, which you can see in every slice, you would never know this wasn’t just whole-wheat bread. Even calling it “whole grain” wouldn’t do it justice. It has a wonderfully chewy crust and an extraordinary, deep flavor — a mix of earthiness from the grains and tang from its sourdough leavener.
Baker Jonathan Bethony dreamed up this particular loaf because it incorporates what Heinz Thomet, an organic farmer in Maryland, grows to keep his land healthy and primed to produce more traditional wheat. (The name "horse bread" is inspired by history, Bethony says, as this is the kind of nutritious bread ancient Persians fed their racehorses.)
“Rather than telling the farmer what I want, he’s telling me what to make,” Bethony says. “The land is telling him what to grow, and I’m putting the finishing touches on his work.”
That way of thinking is typical for Bethony, a wiry 34-year-old with a long, bushy beard whose Seylou Bakery & Mill is set to open in Shaw on Thursday. Baking bread is not simply about turning water, yeast and flour into food; it is about "intention" and "connections" and achieving "contentment in one's soul," he says. And so Bethony buys only locally grown grains, which he mills himself at the bakery and never sifts, ensuring that all the nutritious oils and bran remain in his bread and pastries.
"Jonathan has this Buddha kind of approach," says Dan Barber, the nationally renowned chef who has worked with Bethony and whose 2014 book, "The Third Plate," urges a new cuisine based on crops that bolster the soil. "The average person might come away with a picture of a guy harking back to a Platonic ideal of what bread should be. Actually what he is doing is very futuristic. You're basically looking at the Steve Jobs of bread."
There’s always a sign
Bethony’s path to Washington, as one of the country’s premier bakers, was circuitous. He grew up in Upstate New York and hoped to be a musician. He wasn’t interested in college, but his mother persuaded him to attend the Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. Bethony majored in ethnomusicology, but he credits the school with opening his mind to different perspectives. “Body/mind practice” is, after all, a mandatory part of the curriculum.
After graduating in 2004, Bethony went to Senegal to explore West African music. He ended up in a tiny village called Touba Sanokho, which he describes as a place where “people live spirituality in a way that is not contrived, or unnatural or separate.” He lived there for 40 days, doing nothing for the first time in his life — “just living.”
More on that later. But to simplify, let’s start with the first time he made bread.
It was 2012, and he and Jessica Azeez, who is now his wife and will run the cafe at Seylou, had just returned from a trip to India. Bethony was unemployed and aimless. He came home one day, and one of his roommates, also unemployed, was making bread. Bethony offered to help and soon found himself “obsessed.” Here was something he enjoyed that also had purpose. He wasn’t earning money, but he was literally putting bread on the table.
Soon thereafter, Bethony took an unpaid job at Burnt Toast, a bakery in Boulder. The owner taught to him to bake not by measuring but by feel. It was, Bethony says, “real, true alchemy.” Next, with Azeez’s approval, he used their wedding money to enroll in an intensive course at the San Francisco Baking Institute. “I thought I was pretty good,” he remembers. “I got leveled. Totally humbled.”
After graduating, Bethony found work, but not the kind he was looking for. He wanted to apprentice with a master. Instead, he found gigs managing bakeries, and he needed two or three of them to afford life in the Bay Area. To make matters worse, the clamor for gluten-free baked goods was taking off. Suddenly, Bethony felt like he was peddling poison, he says. He fell into a funk.
It was reflecting on his time in Senegal, and his promises to help the villagers there, that lifted him out of his melancholy. It allowed him to see purpose in his life that had been missing. And then there was a sign; Bethony is always looking for signs. It turned out that Craig Ponsford, a legendary baker, happened to live just down the block from him in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Ponsford is famous in baking circles as the first American to win the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris in 1996. Like the "Judgment of Paris," 20 years earlier, when California winemakers outscored their French counterparts in a blind tasting of red and white wines, this established the United States as a force in the world of bread baking. Ponsford mentored Bethony, and in 2013 recommended him for a job at the Washington State University Bread Lab. (His interview call came when he was at concert of West African music — another sign.)
The Bread Lab’s goal is to breed and promote new varieties of wheat and other grains to identify what grows well for farmers, and to add flavor and nutrients that are lacking in commercially produced, all-purpose flour. It is a magnet for pioneering bakers, such as San Francisco’s Chad Robertson of Tartine and Josey Baker of Josey Baker Bread, and Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur Flour in Vermont. Bethony learned from all of them.
At a higher level, though, the Bread Lab hopes to do for wheat what has been done for tomatoes: raise awareness among consumers of the different varieties, heirloom and otherwise, and the vast differences in taste between store-bought and garden-grown. “I have some 12 wheats here,” Bethony said pointing to the sacks of grain in his bakery in Blagden Alley. “It’s not just wheat. It’s Alice and Warthog and Redeemer and Glenn and Expedition.
“I don’t actually like Glenn very much; it’s rubbery. But I’m going to figure out how to use it. That’s what I did at the Bread Lab. If it works for the farmer, I figure out how to use it.”
Bethony has tried to make his process transparent to customers as soon as they step into the bright, 1,700-square-foot Seylou space. Just inside the door is the stone mill, two 700-pound granite stones carved with furrows to shear the bran and rub the germ oil into the flour. This significantly shortens shelf life — the oils will go rancid if the flour is not used quickly. But it also preserves the grain’s flavor and all the nutrients in the oil. “We’re all used to ‘dead’ flour that can sit on the shelf basically forever,” Bethony says. “This flour is a living thing.”
If the mill doesn’t catch the eye, the oven surely will. It is huge: a brick round, 14 feet in diameter. Inside is a one-ton disk of stone that sits above a wood fire and is manually rotated by a small wheel by the oven door. Designed by a Barcelona company that has been making ovens for three generations, the oven arrived in pieces that had filled an entire shipping container and were assembled in the bakery by Spanish craftsmen. Bethony describes it as the most manual-production oven you can find: “I like being in touch with the elements: turning the wheel, stoking the fire, controlling the airflow. With an electric or gas oven, you turn it on. This one you have to feel.”
Bethony needs control over every stage of the process because his approach to bread is revolutionary. While several American bakers buy local grains and mill to order, he may be the only one who doesn’t sift out any of the bran, the fiber-rich outer coating.
This is challenging enough in bread. To avoid tasting “healthy,” in that leaden 1970s way, whole-grain loaves require lots of water and long fermentations. (Bethony’s loaves take as long as three days, from start to finish.) But making pastry with unsifted flour is all but unheard of. And to make it even more complicated, Bethony has encouraged his pastry chef, Charbel Abrache, to use alternatives to wheat whenever possible and has banned all refined sugars. Though it is not his “intention” per se, this also has the added benefit of making many pastries gluten-free.
The boundaries have been a challenge, an exciting and anxiety-provoking one, for Abrache. There have been successes: The brownies made with sorghum and the buttery almond financiers that use einkorn, an ancient wheat variety, are showstoppers. But there have been plenty of flops: Éclair dough made with sorghum grain tasted delicious but collapsed in the oven because it lacked gluten. “We’re now at the point where if we can use millet or buckwheat or any alternative grain, I will use them,” Abrache says. “It’s only in the products where it’s extremely necessary”— like that éclair — “where I will use local wheat.” The new éclair, made with Alice wheat and filled with coffee cream, is a triumph.
None of this comes cheap, of course. Paying the farmers and for prime real estate in Shaw means that a loaf of Seylou bread will go for $12, though customers can buy a half loaf for $6. But that may not be quite as high as it seems, explains Samuel Fromartz, author of "In Search of the Perfect Loaf." The high quantities of water and the sourdough starter, which keeps mold at bay, mean a loaf of bread will last for close to a week on the counter without going stale. Plus, he adds, you also don't need to eat as much of it to feel satiated.
True to his nature, Bethony has other plans to make sure the bakery is not perceived as elite. Customers on food assistance will get a 50 percent discount. Bethony says he will find a way to help customers who cannot afford to pay: “I do not want to create this fancy bread place. At all. It would fly in the face of everything I’m doing.”
Still, he has a good feeling that it all will work out. In fact, he saw a sign. Around the corner from the bakery is a colorful mural by Washington artist Aniekan Udofia. The man pictured in it, floating godlike in the sky above, looks uncannily like Moro Kebe Sanokho, Bethony's "guru" in the Senegalese village that set him on his journey so long ago.
Black is a former Food section staff writer, based in Washington. She covers food politics and culture.
Seylou Bakery & Mill, 926 N St. NW. seylou.com. Opens Thursday; regularly open Wednesdays through Sundays. Jonathan Bethony will answer questions in our Free Range discussion at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
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