"One of my missions on this planet is to serve bread," declares Michael London, co-owner—with his wife, Wendy—of what is possibly the country's most fabulous bakeshop: Mrs. London's, in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Londons, who met 25 years ago in (where else?) a bakery and were married "literally between batches," as he puts it, have many missions, all currently being realized in this sleepy horse-racing town four hours north of New York City. They make pastries that rival the best in Paris. They run a consulting business to teach others the theory and practice of baking. And they produce spectacular loaves of rich pain de mie, earthy chestnut bread, French rye, Nyons olive, walnut, ciabatta and their signature "fire bread" that, with its dense, chewy crumb and its crackling crust, is the American equivalent of Paris's legendary pain Poilâne.
But for Michael London, to serve bread means not only to bake it and to sell it—even, as in the recipes that follow, to use it in bread pudding and other dishes—but also to be its servant. "Bread is the guru," declares Mrs. London's new Web site, summarizing the philosophy that underlies everything the Londons have done.
The Hollywood biopic of the Michael London story could open with his father, Danny, who was born deaf and dumb, had both hearing and voice bestowed on him at the age of 19 by a blow to the head in the boxing ring and went on to become one of the leading featherweight contenders of his day. But Michael's story is really the saga of a perfectionist. Trained as a pastry chef, Michael opened Mrs. London's in 1975. His pastries and breads were praised by Craig Claiborne and doted on by George Balanchine, but lovely as it was to have food writers and ballet masters salivating, London was never quite satisfied. "In my heart of hearts, it was always bread," he says.
So after 10 years, he moved his bread-making operation to his 1805 farmhouse, renamed the Rock Hill Bakehouse. The "Bakehouse" was nothing more than an average-size kitchen, but it was promptly colonized by four tons of bread a week, laid to cool on a tarp on the lawn—loaves named the Annie and the Charlie, loaves that predated the great artisanal bread explosion of the late '80s by several years.
London began to articulate his philosophy of baking: about using organic grains (or, better still, grains grown by the environmentally and spirituallyconscious farming method known as Biodynamics); about doing everything, except the mixing, by hand; about making breads that express the genius loci, because bread should contain the spirit of the place where it's made.
Rock Hill was soon squeezing out 20,000 loaves a week to satisfy Manhattan restaurants like Le Bernardin and Lespinasse. But London wasn't interested in merely overseeing a production line. And so we come to The Oven. "I had always been determined to build an oven consistent with my vision of a bakery," London explains. "It's very important that bread be baked in a chamber where there's been fire, so it wears a little ash."
London decided there was only one man in the world who could build his dream oven: Ernst Heuft, a fifth-generation oven builder originally from Bell, the German village known as Backofenbauer Dorf ("bake-oven builder's town"). He also found that only one material would do: tuff, a volcanic stone formed from ash compressed for more than 20,000 years. In 1994, London got his oven, the first of its kind in America. Heuft was so excited to build it that he refused payment. The five-pound loaves of Bakehouse Hill Rock Hill Reserve are its fruit, made in a limited quantity of no more than a hundred a day.
Michael and Wendy are aided by a squadron of consummate bakers: Ben Wenk and Zeke Vaughn, who roll out dough until the sun comes up; Timothy Hangarter, a onetime Mrs. Londoner who returned, prodigal-like, after 12 years as a construction foreman; Lena Favaloro, a dessert chef from Liverpool; and Bernard Castellani, who came from Provence three years ago to man The Oven.
And so the biopic has a neat Hollywood ending as the London story comes full circle, from great pastry and remarkable bread to incredible pastry and unbelievable bread. (Along the way, Michael and Wendy's son Max becomes a chef; several of the following recipes—those for ratatouille strata, wild-mushroom bread pudding and herbed croutons—are his.) But really, the story's just begun. Go visit. Ask Michael London about his belief that bread actually makes itself, about giving the day's first loaf back to the oven, about how serving bread is a very fine thing indeed.