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Legendary Vermont Bakers May Stop Selling Beloved Sourdough Bread
Originally published on Tue August 26, 2014 3:26 pm
When Jules Rabin lost his job teaching anthropology in 1977, he and his wife, Helen, turned to baking to keep their family afloat. For 37 years they've baked sourdough bread that people in central Vermont can't seem to live without.
The year before Jules left Goddard College, he and Helen built a replica of a 19th century peasant oven, hauling 70 tons of fieldstone from nearby fields. The stones covered an igloo-shaped brick baking chamber 5 1/2 feet in diameter.
The Rabins started selling bread made with sourdough starter; it soon developed a cult following. The business supported the family for 25 years.
"I'm simply the oven man," 90-year-old Jules tells me while tending the last embers of a fire that has burned for 24 hours. "My work is crude. It involves some skills, but Helen is the heart of this work."
At first the Rabins' bake house was outdoors. But they put up a building around it so they could work during Vermont's harsh winters. As Helen, 73, mixes flour, water, salt and sourdough starter in an industrial-size mixer from the 1920s, she belittles her contribution to the enterprise.
"The formula for the bread itself and the flour and the sourdough is really available to anybody," she says, "but if our bread is different — and I think it's somewhat different from what most other people make — it has to be the oven."
The 38-year-old wood-fired oven at their home in Marshfield, Vt., is based on one they saw at a commune in France while Jules was on sabbatical. Knocking on a wood food counter used for forming loaves from the dough, Helen says, "I'm especially proud because after 35, 40 years, it hasn't fallen down."
Helen is still able to lug 50-pound sacks of flour and grain around the bake house. The Rabins use King Arthur white flour but grind their own wheat and rye flour in a small electric mill.
The tools used for the fire have a DIY edge to them: A broom, hoe and mop used on the oven floor are attached to 6-foot-8-inch tree limbs. The mop is a burlap coffee sack that Jules refer to as a shmatte, using the Yiddish word for rag.
"This whole enterprise is based on shmatte technology," he says.
Helen scoffs at the notion that it's kind of cool that she's kept her original batch of sourdough starter going since the late 1970s. She points out that the bacteria used in the starter are everywhere in the natural environment. Her daughter, Nessa, says it's definitely cool.
Nessa is a proud union baker at the Hunger Mountain Food Co-op in Montpelier. The union is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and Nessa is a pastry chef. She's been taking Fridays off during the summer to go help her parents bake.
The Rabins retired in 2002, but son Julian's need for a summer job four years ago provided the impetus for them to come out of retirement.
At the Plainfield farmers market, the only place where you can buy Rabin bread, Nessa greeted a customer who joked about getting to the market late and still scoring a loaf of Rabin bread.
The weekly trip to the farmers market is a time when the Rabins socialize with their fans and friends, who are often one and the same.
"We've been buying this bread since they started baking it," said Lorrie Goldensohn, whose husband, Barry, taught at Goddard with Jules. "We've had great bread in Paris and Austria and this has always been right up there."
Clutching a loaf of sourdough rye, Eleanor Randall remarks, "Oh, my God. This is so good. It's just moist and grainy and makes you think you're in France for a little while."
To which her husband. Leonard Irving, adds: "There's no better bread than Jules and Helen's. ... And, of course, it's baked the same morning. You can't beat that."
The bread that many in central Vermont can't live without will be available for two more Fridays at the Plainfield farmers market. The Rabins say that they're not sure if they'll bake again next summer.
Manhattan-based radio reporter Jon Kalish has reported for NPR since 1980. Links to radio documentaries, podcasts and stories on NPR are at Kalish Labs.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When Jules Rabin lost his job teaching anthropology some 37 years ago, he and his wife Helen turned to baking to keep their family afloat. They began making and selling sourdough bread. People in central Vermont ate it up. But as Jon Kalish reports, as this summer draws to a close, Rabin bread may also be nearing its last loaf.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: At five a.m., 90-year-old Jules Rabin stokes the fire in his brick and stone oven. Later in the morning, Rabin uses a burlap coffee sack to mop up ash from the oven floor.
JULES RABIN: This whole enterprise is based on shmatte technology.
KALISH: Shmatte is the Yiddish word for rag. The Rabin's replica of a 19th-century peasant oven was built with 70 tons of fieldstone. Jules Rabin gathered all that stone from local fields with his wife, Helen.
HELEN RABIN: I'm especially proud because after 35, 40 years, it hasn't fallen down. (Laughter).
KALISH: At 73, Helen Rabin is still able to lift 50-pound sacks of flour and grain in the bake house behind the couple's home in Marshfield. Their loaves have only been available in central Vermont. The Rabins refuse an order for their white, rye and whole wheat sourdough bread from the gourmet food store Zabar's.
H. RABIN: You know, the formula for the bread itself and the flour and the sourdough is really available to anybody. But if our bread is different - and people say it is, and I think it's somewhat different from what most other people make - it has to be the oven.
KALISH: Helen Rabin has kept her original batch of sourdough starter going since the late 1970s. The Rabins retired in 2002, but started baking again a few years ago when their grandson needed a summer job. Every Friday during the summer, they bake 90 loaves of sourdough bread.
J. RABIN: I'm simply the oven man. I - my work is crude. It involves some skills but Helen is the heart of this work. That's all I can say.
KALISH: The Rabins inspired several wood-fired bakeries in Vermont. Robert Hunt runs Bohemia Bread in Marshfield.
ROBERT HUNT: Brick oven bakeries are popping up all over the country. But before the Rabins nobody really thought of making a living selling bread out of a wood-fired oven in the countryside.
KALISH: The Rabin's daughter Nessa is a pastry chef at a local food co-op. She helps bake and sell bread at the Plainfield Farmer's Market on Fridays where the sourdough loaves go quickly. It's the only place the bread is sold.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The early bird gets the baguette.
N. RABIN: Come on, early bird.
KALISH: The weekly trip to the farmer's market is also a time for socializing with fans and friends, like Eleanor Randall and her husband Leonard Irving.
ELEANOR RANDALL: This rye bread - oh, my god. It's so good. It's just moist and grainy. And the taste is solid - makes you think you're in France for a little while.
LEONARD IRVING: There's no better bread than Jules' and Helen's. It's the best. And, of course, baked the same morning - you can't beat that.
KALISH: That Rabin bread will be available for two more weeks. The couple says that at their age, they're not sure if they'll bake again next summer. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.