WINCHESTER — Every morning Mamadou Mbaye rises long before dawn to start the baguettes. Each of the long, slender loaves must be shaped laboriously by hand, so that the interior is soft but the crust crackles with each bite.
For almost 10 years, Mbaye has been selling bread and French pastries here in his spare bakery, Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery; at many farmers’ markets; and elsewhere. His business has become an institution. He knows that the 50 to 100 baguettes he makes will be gone by the end of each morning, and that hundreds more loaves of French sourdough, multigrain, and other varieties will mostly be sold by nightfall.
He carries on a tradition of classic French baking honed over centuries. But in his case, it’s a tradition that traveled from France to his native Senegal and finally to Massachusetts.
On a typical busy day, Mbaye says, he’ll bake 300 to 400 loaves, 500 on weekends — baguettes, multigrain, semolina cranberry fennel, Asiago and cheddar cheese, cranberry-pecan, French country sourdough, olive bread. “It’s a lot of work,” he says, lamenting that two workers left within the last year and he’s now baking by himself. And yet, he adds, “baking is the easy part” of the business.
In November 2007, Mbaye and his wife, Mame, opened Mamadou’s on a quiet side street in Winchester. Mbaye, a slender, wiry man with a winning smile and a humorous bent, had dabbled with baking while in secondary school in Senegal, and then began baking in earnest after he immigrated to the United States. He worked for Whole Foods for 10 years, baking and training other bakers, before setting out on his own, wanting to produce the varieties he liked and to have control of his own business.
Senegal, in West Africa, was colonized by France in the early 19th century, and French baking traditions took hold. Mbaye says that the bread is very good in Senegal, and that he first began to be interested in bread while experimenting in a friend’s family’s bakery. But he hadn’t intended to pursue it as a career. “I never planned to be a baker,” he says as he moves around his bakery filled with professional equipment and the wonderful aroma of baking bread. “I just fell in love with it.”
Breads sell from $4 to $7 at five summer farmers’ markets, Mahoney’s Winter Market in Winchester this season, several Whole Foods, the Boston Public Market, and the Winchester shop. Mbaye has faithful customers who come weekly or even daily for their loaves.
But there’s a price, he says. In the summer farmers’ market season, “I start at 2 a.m. on weekdays,” and at midnight on weekends, to make the dough, let it rise, shape loaves, proof, and bake in a deck oven that holds 50 loaves at a time. “If you don’t have the passion, you can’t do it,” he says of the long and back-breaking days. Winter and early spring are easier, giving him a chance for more than four or five hours of sleep a night. After the busy holiday season, he even took a short vacation.
As he talks of how different flours are better for different varieties of bread, he pulls crusty loaves out of the oven with a long-handled baker’s paddle that’s chipped and broken on one end. It’s old, he explains with a smile. “Like me. I used to be young and tireless.”
Meanwhile, a short line is forming in the shop. “Our customers are great,” he says as he goes to package up two almond croissants for a woman, only to discover that his credit card machine isn’t functioning. “That’s all right,” she says. “I’ll go find an ATM and be back.” One man leaves, dejected, when there are no more baguettes. A woman smiles as Mbaye hurries to the back to get a just-baked cranberry pecan loaf.
“Without my wife, I couldn’t do this,” Mbaye says. Mame handles the farmers’ markets, bookkeeping, and other duties. He sidles two remaining croissants onto a shelf in the back. “She sometimes likes them for breakfast. I’ll be in trouble if I sell them all.”
The couple, who live in Winchester, have a 16-year-old son, Aldemba, who helps in the shop in the summer. The bakery business has helped them all, the high school student says, leading to friends and a place in the community.
A regular customer comes in with her children, one just days old. She and Mbaye chat in French as she buys her loaves of multigrain and sourdough. The croissant customer returns with cash and asks Mbaye: “Why don’t you sell at the Lexington Farmers’ Market?” There’s another baker there, he says. “But he’s not you,” she says with a sigh as she takes the croissants Mbaye has just sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Questions about expanding to other sites or building out the store into a cafe-style bakery are met with a smile.
“I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew,” he says. “If I could bake 2,000 loaves a day, I know I could sell them.”
Mamadou’s Artisan Bakery, 63 Swanton St., Winchester, 781-560-8068.Alison Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Alison Arnett can be reached at email@example.com