Local baker has passion for artisan breads

By Kevin Hotary - Staff Writer
Salem - posted Wed., May. 25, 2011
Todd Solek loads the fresh baked bread into baskets to bring into the shop.
Todd Solek loads the fresh baked bread into baskets to bring into the shop.

When he was 16 or 17 years old, Todd Solek built an earthenware oven in his parents' backyard.

“I fired it up, and it didn’t fall apart, so I started baking bread in it,” he said. And now, at age 32, Solek has channeled this early passion for bread-making into his unique new business, Farm to Hearth Wood Fired Bakery, located at 26 New London Road in Salem.  

Drawn to food preparation at an early age, Solek focused on breads, “the simplest of foods with three ingredients, that when done properly transcends the sum of its parts,” he said.

Solek and his wife, Melissa, began baking three years ago, making pizza in a smaller, more portable version of their current oven at various farmers' markets throughout the area.

“We would make our own pizza dough, and we would source all of our toppings and ingredients from the local farms,” said Solek. This commitment to using locally-produced and natural ingredients remains to this day.

“I committed myself a long time ago to using very primitive methods, no mechanical equipment, strictly organic flours and grains, natural leavens using a wild yeast that I have to propagate and feed daily,” in a process that takes a lot more time than if they were using commercial yeast, said Solek. “We’re doing things in a very slow manner. But that’s how you develop the flavor. That’s how you develop the texture. That’s the soul of the bread.”

Applying equal parts science and art, Solek has turned this baking philosophy into a business that, after only a few weeks, already has people lining up out the door around 4 p.m., when the first loaves come out of the nearly four-ton wood-fired oven parked behind the building. 

At this two-person operation, Solek limits his production to 100 loaves of bread a day, Tuesday through Saturday, in a process that begins the evening before when the starter – about 35 pounds worth – is fed.

In the morning, he mixes the dough for that day’s bake, usually 20 to 25 loaves of four or five different types of bread, while using the residual heat from the previous day to bake scones, cookies and other non-bread items.  He fires the wood-burning oven around 9 a.m. and clears the ash around noon, with the oven at about 650 degrees. The first loaves, always some type of focaccia, go in around 3:30 p.m., and the last loaves, those with the highest proportion of whole grain, come out last, around 6 p.m.

“We wanted people to get the freshest bread possible,” said Solek.  The original idea was to sell the bread fresh out of the oven and throughout the following day, but response has been so strong that “typically, we don’t have any bread left for the next day,” said Solek, so people must wait for that day’s bake.

Solek rotates about 10 different types of “core” breads like Heritage Wheat, Country and Farm House bread, along with occasional “Bakers Choice” breads, that often depend upon what ingredients are available locally.

“When farmers start to pull their potatoes out of the ground, I’ll do a roasted potato bread,” said Solek, as an example of one of his baker's choice breads. 

“I really understand my ingredients, so I always like to try and push the envelope, or I always try to look for new ways to use local ingredients and incorporate them into a bread,” said Solek, who was recently named Artisan Food Producer of the Year by “Edible Nutmeg” magazine.

And it’s that type of connection with the surrounding community that is most important to Solek, who uses no mass-produced ingredients.  Cheese for the focaccia comes from Salem’s own Woodbridge Farm, which also uses the ash produced by Solek’s oven to add nutrients to its crops, and herbs come from a CSA started by a local teenager, whose father, a blacksmith, made some of the tools used by Solek.  Even the inside of the bakery, which Solek hopes to eventually make into a gathering place complete with a 12- foot community table that is being hand-made by a woodworker friend, is filled with the works of area artisans.

“Our goal is to produce great bread and help promote and support other local artisans, local farmers, sustainable agriculture, and the local food movement in general,” said Solek.

It’s also not unusual for Solek to draw a small crowd as he finishes his bread at the outdoor oven, turning bread making into a sort of performance art, which Solek doesn’t seem to mind. That way, people know that “from start to finish, it’s just my two hands that touch the bread.”

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