DERRY, N.H. — Bread is more to Cheryl Holbert than a simple foodstuff. Much more.
“It’s life in a bowl,” says the proprietor of Nomad Bakery, a cottage endeavor she runs out of her home here in southern New Hampshire. The “life in a bowl” stage comes as yeast and flour, water and time, work their magic. At the end of that process, Holbert turns out artfully braided challahs, crusty fougasse, and a variety of other loaves that have the unmistakable look and taste of bread made by hand, with exquisite care.
Holbert, 59, came to professional baking relatively late in life. But then, she’s the kind of person who’s always been open to exploring whatever opportunities might arise. “Diving in, making mistakes, and figuring it out later is how I’ve done everything in life,” says the New Jersey native with a laugh.
That attitude carried her through serial careers as a journalist and an arts educator. It was during the former that she met her husband, former Boston Herald cartoonist Jerry Holbert. When they moved to Somerville, in their early years together, Holbert — whose grandmother was “an amazing baker” — says she noticed a paucity of good bread. (Needless to say, this was before artisan bread became ubiquitous.) So Holbert jumped in with both feet, quickly becoming an accomplished home baker.
The family relocated to New Hampshire 27 years ago, and Holbert, who’d picked up weaving along the way, found herself developing a fiber arts program for newly arrived refugees at the Currier Museum. But bread continued to be central to her life.
“People would say, ‘Why don’t you sell your bread?’ And I just laughed,” says Holbert. But farmers’ markets and the cottage bakery movement were building momentum, and the time seemed right for another career move. Her background in weaving and fiber arts pointed the way to creating intricate challahs, which — along with her crusty sourdough loaves — soon developed a following at farmers’ markets and a few local shops. The business, dubbed Nomad Bakery, brought in a little extra income and satisfied Holbert’s creative side. She earned numerous awards and added teaching to her portfolio, leading bread classes at King Arthur Flour’s baking school in Vermont.
And then, last August, the Holberts received a diagnosis that led to another reset for Cheryl. Jerry had been exhibiting worrisome symptoms that sent the couple to a neurologist for answers. Eventually, they learned that he has frontotemporal dementia, a rare form of brain atrophy that has left him unable to work. Faced with significant medical bills and the challenges of caring for a disabled spouse, Cheryl did what she’s always done: She dived in.
“I’m transitioning from being our supplementary income to being our primary income,” she says. She’s ramping up the cottage bakery production, raising her social media profile with help from the couple’s two grown children, and giving classes in her home kitchen, to grow Nomad into a more profitable business that’s still manageable in scale.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, as a dusting of snow fell outside, Holbert welcomed six students for a class on fougasse, a slow-rising flatbread baked on the stone shelves of her commercial Belgian oven. (Ice and snow had temporarily cut off access to the wood-burning oven she built in her backyard.) The students — some experienced bakers, some novices — followed along intently as Holbert went through the basics of mixing, kneading, and forming the loaf.
To a make a fougasse, start to finish, takes longer than the allotted four-hour class time, so Holbert had prepared a batch of dough earlier that the students would form into loaves. As the class began, she walked them through the process of making the dough. Much of the lesson could be boiled down to a favorite maxim of Holbert’s: “In bread-baking, time equals flavor,” she told the class.
She coached them through the various shapes that a fougasse might take — a triangle, a rectangle, a heart — noting that she always introduces an intentional note of asymmetry: “That creates something more artful and pleasing to the eye.” And she stressed the importance of creating steam in a hot oven, which helps bread develop a crisp, golden crust.
Finally, the loaves emerged, crackling and charred in spots, delightfully chewy within. The students shared a colorful spread of Mediterranean appetizers along with the fougasse. Student Kevin Tighe, a first-time bread baker, called the class “liberating,” adding, “I’ve broken free from Wonder Bread jail.”
For Holbert, bread is not just life in a bowl but an actual lifeline that sees her through challenging times. “You can master bread,” she says, “but it’s always going to remind you that life is bigger than you. It’s going to remind you of your place. That has taught me how to live — and how to go forward in life.”