RICHMOND, N.H. — Dan Greenspan went from jazzman to breadman, a circuitous path that involved reading about an ancient loaf and striving to perfect it, apprenticing himself briefly to a professional baker in New Hampshire, and having a well-known oven maker build him a customized wood-fired oven on the back wall of what had been a screened-in porch at his house here.
Since September, Greenspan has been producing Dan’s Brick Oven Bread, an old Flemish loaf called desem. It is a naturally leavened whole-wheat sourdough bread, and flour, water, and salt are the only ingredients. His weekly yield is 150 loaves. Greenspan delivers his hearty, artisan loaves to the Boston area, where they sell for $5.49 to $6.99.
The oven, built by William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat in Burlington, Vt., has steel doors and a long hearth with a curved roof. Greenspan is surrounded by the few things he needs to produce his loaves: cooling racks, a proofing drawer, a wood workbench, shelving storage, and a retro refrigerator, in which the dough sits for four hours before baking.
A native of New Haven, Greenspan, 57, has been a jazz musician all his life, playing double bass with his wife, the renowned jazz singer Mili Bermejo, who was raised in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. She teaches voice at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. If you look carefully at Greenspan’s delivery route, you’ll notice that he starts out on a Tuesday to bring Bermejo into Boston, and always delivers on a Friday, to pick her up (the couple has another residence in Massachusetts). Many deliveries are a five-minute drive off Route 2.
The desem loaves use 40 percent freshly ground flour made from wheat berries grown in Vermont, and super fine whole-wheat flour from Southern Quebec, which gives the bread a sweet nutty flavor and a chewy consistency that makes great toast. Salt comes from Maine Sea Salt Co. The starter for the bread is made with flour and water that is buried in flour. “It selects yeast and bacteria naturally present in wheat,’’ says Greenspan.
“The desem leaven is known for its flavor and leavening power,’’ says the baker. “It’s unique among sourdoughs, sour but not super sour.’’
He began making the starter last February, when he used two clay pots called cloches in his own kitchen oven. The couple were making additions to their house each year, assembling a music room, a sewing room, cold storage and food prep area, building a barn and an outdoor clay beehive baking oven, and creating multiple gardens.
But he was looking for a project. “What kind of a cottage industry can I do here in New Hampshire?’’ he wondered. He had an eight-month job decades ago at Au Bon Pain in West Hartford, Conn., “between music things,’’ where, he says, he “loved every minute of the baking.’’ He thought about the desem loaf he used to buy that had been made by the former Baldwin Hill Bakery in Massachusetts.
His real education on the desem loaf came from “The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book,’’ in which an entire chapter is devoted to it. “It was very esoteric and bizarre,’’ he says, “and I had to read it a billion times.’’ He took the plunge, making the starter and then the bread. He nailed the recipe on the first try.
He helped out Noah Elbers at Orchard Hill Breadworks in East Alstead, N.H., picking the baker’s brain as they worked for half a day, once a week for several months. “The most I did was divide dough. I cut vegetables because he was doing a focaccia thing.’’ It was Elbers who told him about Davenport. “He sent me an estimate and I almost had a stroke,’’ says Greenspan. This was the smallest oven Davenport had designed. Greenspan cashed in a life insurance policy to pay the $20,000 it cost to build it.
Michael Staub, a restaurant consultant in Cambridge and an old friend, heartily endorsed the project. Davenport went to Richmond with Antoine Guerlain, a mason, for a couple of weeks last spring to start building. By Labor Day, the new oven was officially fired, burning remnants of softwood from local trees. Greenspan bakes 32 loaves of bread at a time, in two batches.
When Greenspan and Bermejo eat the bread, it might be toasted with Mexican crema and poblano peppers on top. The dish comes from Bermejo’s childhood, the peppers from their own garden, the bread from the custom-built oven. A jazzman decided to start a cottage industry and in less than a year, business is flourishing.
Dan’s Brick Oven Bread is available at:
Formaggio Kitchen 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750
Dave’s Fresh Pasta 81 Holland St., Somerville, 617-623-0867
Sherman Market 25 Washington St., Somerville, 617-666-0179
City Feed and Supply 672 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-1700
Harvard General Store 1 Still River Road, Harvard, 978-430-0062
The Natural Market 148 Main St., Groton, 978-448-5075
Debra’s Natural Gourmet 98 Commonwealth Ave., West Concord, 978-371-7573
Roots 100 Crawford St., Leominister, 978-534-7668
Rachel Travers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.