"Mom always made bread. And I always pooh-poohed it as a kid," says baker Jim Betts. "I wanted Pepperidge Farm white — thin-sliced. But Dad said, 'C'mon, this crust is the best.' I've since learned my dad knew a thing or two."
The now older and much wiser Betts is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his business, Bluegrass Baking Co., all year long. It specializes in fresh-baked bread with crusts that crackle, like Mom's.
The last 13 of those years have been at the company's location in Stonewall Center on Clays Mill Road. Step inside and the aroma is an instant connection to life long ago, when the smells of breadmaking permeated every manor kitchen and hut.
It explains why more people like Betts — a former anthropology major — are drawn to the kind of hands-on work that allows them to measure out their lives in tablespoons instead of TPS reports.
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Artisan breadmaking, in which everything is mixed, shaped and baked on the premises, is a mainstay of the "buy local" food movement. Betts didn't jump on the bandwagon; he helped put it on the road in Lexington.
This year, he is focused on building a collective of local cheesemakers, winemakers, butchers and others with similar ideals of small-batch, healthy foods.
For the stout of heart: As part of the yearlong celebration, the bakery is expanding its selection of pastries and cookies, and is spotlighting a different international culture each month, beginning with March.
In part, it's a salute to the customer base. Betts says the bakery is like a home away from home for Lexington's foreign-born residents.
"On Saturdays, the clientele is 30 percent to 50 percent foreign," he says.
This month's focus is naturally on Ireland; there's soda bread and Guinness Stout bread and cake, and shamrock cookies for St. Patrick's Day. You might even find a Guinness pot pie.
April is devoted to Russia, where bread is serious business. Betts says Russian Easter bread will go well with hot-cross buns, which are a bakery tradition the week before the holiday.
Betts, 51, moved to Kentucky with his family when he was 13. His dad was Raymond Betts, a highly regarded UK history professor who knew a good crust when he tasted it. When Jim Betts got to college, at Oberlin in northeast Ohio, he did exhaustive research on the art of baking, not in any classroom but in the kitchen of one of the dining co-ops for which the school is known.
"I fell in love with breadmaking," he says. "It was a big stress-reliever, and it was great to have fresh loaves around the house."
After graduating, he headed to San Francisco. Bread bakeries weren't common then, so he found work in several pastry shops. And he fell in love again, not with petit fours or madeleines but with a woman named Francine. They moved back here and, 20 years ago, started a business called Thorough-bread Bakery.
"The name was way too clever," Betts says. "No one could ever find it in the phone book, not even the operators."
D'oh!: The bakery started with a limited selection: a seven-grain based on Mom's natural yeast bread, a French bâtard and a Jewish rye. The focus at the outset was on pastries. But Betts couldn't forget those fresh loaves in college, or the year he'd spent in France with his family as a boy, going every morning to the boulangerie for a warm baguette. The anthropology student in him couldn't escape the daily reminders of the importance of bread to humanity: Breadwinner ... 'Bread' and 'dough' as slang for money ... Put bread on the table... Give us this day, our daily... Enough! The Bettses saw the light and put bread at center stage at Thorough-bread.
After a few years, the couple moved to the County Market at Lexington Mall, a no-frills grocery store that used to attract early adherents of the "grow local, buy local" philosophy. But running the bakery there was anything but a laid-back experience. They stuck it out for three years.
"It was trying. That's the best word to describe it," Betts says. "But it taught us how to do volume."
At their first place, 10 loaves represented a busy day. Today, the daily output is close to 500.
Every week, the bakery goes through a ton of flour, 100 pounds of butter, 150 pounds of sugar and 90 dozen eggs.
Francine is a full business partner, but she is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.
Bluegrass Baking Company, the company's more accessible name since it moved to Stonewall, now has six skilled laborers creating and baking, doing their own form of performance art where every customer can see.
"We're all a bunch of hams," Betts says. "We love to talk about the lore, the technique." He sees the process of making food as theater. "When you throw 150 pounds of dough on the table, it's pretty dramatic." And it's experimental theater: one employee was recently observed making an artisanal interpretation of a Hostess Ding Dong.
Yeast of Eden: The bakery is celebrating two anniversaries this year; one is its own 20th, and the other is the 75th anniversary of the starter that went into Betts' mother's bread, the stuff he once dismissed as "too weedy."
She got it in 1961 from a friend in Iowa, when it was 25. "She gave me a cup to start with," he says. "We now make 10 gallons of it a day." He explains that the starter, which is the matrix for the one-celled yeast organism, must be constantly refreshed or it will kill itself. So the fact that it has lived to 75 speaks volumes — and loaves.
Betts disappears for a minute and comes back with a plastic tub containing the fermenting life form. He stirs the thick, pasty goop with a wooden spoon and offers it up for a whiff.
"Breadmaking is like alchemy," he says. "Every day you take base raw materials and turn them into gold."