Home » The Taste Chase encounters a Great Sourdough Awakening 

The Taste Chase encounters a Great Sourdough Awakening 

by Renata Barnes

Like the promise of spring, the pursuit of culinary adventure lies ahead of the Taste Chase bunch as we plunge into 2024. And so, we begin – weaving our way gastronomically through local (and not so local) places of culinary delight. Loosen your belts (or just ditch them and get something stylishly elastic) and strap in.

On a recent balmy eight-degree January weekend, my “taste bud,” Carly, and I set out on one such adventure bringing the necessary toolsfor any Taste Chase: anticipation, an empty stomach, and of course, taste buds. While Carly’s journey had her snaking up steep snow-covered roads to our destination, mine had me weaving through the slalom of brittle and forgotten coniferous trees that have turned my housing subdevelopment into a Christmas tree graveyard. Our destination this time was a one-year-old bakery in Flemington, NJ whose confections warmed many souls on this cold winter day.

Occupying a corner spot at 123 Main Street in Flemington, Bread and Culture has settled into a steady rhythm of long lines and satisfied patrons, either leaving with bags and boxes of treats or staying to sip steaming Americanos and munch on morning buns flavored with citrus and cardamom. What is of note here, and the thing that sets Bread and Culture apart, is that nearly everything is sourdough-based. All the usual suspects are here, croissants, muffins, danish, and breakfast sandwiches, most with a unique twist, but all either enveloped or supported by an amazingly layered and crisp sourdough pastry.

Carly managed to peer through the throng to get a peek at the counter. Her eyes went wide at the variety and the presentation of the offerings. As we stood in line, we met a woman who travels from Staten Island every two weeks to get 6-10 loaves of bread. “I have a child who has a sensitivity to folic acid and can’t have most breads. Sourdough is the only one that doesn’t make him sick,” she explained. As the line of customers snaked around toward the counter, avoiding the door and other customers with their treats, we were met with the mammoth task of choosing a few items to taste.

Under the gaze of several warm loaves of sourdough bread, we made our choices and sat down to dig in. We tried the Ham and Cheese Croissant first, mainly because this was the one I was least excited about. I am not a fan of the ham used in most croissants; seriously, I have always thought that if you’ve tried one ham and cheese croissant, you’ve tried every one you will ever have. I was wrong. So wrong. The croissant was big and airy with buttery layers, and that crunch of the sourdough pastry heralded its presence, flaky layer after flaky layer. I was surprised and glad that the filling inside was generous but not too much, again because of that ham thing. The difference here was beyond just the sourdough pastry. Carly made note of the everything bagel seasoning on top that brought another layer of flavor and texture to the party.  And for some reason the ham used here just hit differently. While it probably was the choice of a slightly smoky ham, it was also the addition of Guindilla Mayo (mayo infused with a pepper from the Basque Region of Spain) that elevated this well beyond the average.

The aforementioned morning bun, being enjoyed by others with coffee, was my favorite with its big airy and butter-laden layers. I especially liked the inclusion of the cardamom and citrus mingled in just the right amounts so that one did not overpower the other. Like a seasoned foodie, Carly drew my attention to the way the sugar crystallized on the top of the pastry creating a sweet crunch that played so well when you got to the softer parts of the pastry. The mouthfeel of these pastries demand that you take notice of how different they are from what you may have experienced before. You can feel the generosity in the height of the layers as you bite down, the crunch resonates in your head. Then savor the butter, seasonings, and just the subtlest hint of tang that comes from a well-established sourdough starter.

But why sourdough? Honestly, it was not something I would have considered much past its normal station of artisan bread, along with Portuguese Rolls and Country French. But I had to think again! This was an affair of the heart.  “Sourdough was the first loaf of bread I ever made.” recounted Paulo Velasco, owner and head baker at Bread and Culture.

After teaching in the Princeton School district for more than 20 years, Velasco made his first loaf of sourdough bread five years ago and fell seriously in love. “We are a sourdough bakery. 95% of the menu is sourdough.” Clearly he is well past infatuation. “Bread was sustenance for me and I didn’t realize the holistic benefits of it initially.” Sourdough, unlike most breads, fuels good gut bacteria and does not contain folic acid. Additionally, it is less likely to contribute to sugar spike and is much easier for your body to digest.

“I’ve always loved to cook but baking was not something I tended towards,” Velasco continued. A native Californian of Ecuadorian extraction with a gentle and unassuming manner, Velasco counts his step-father as an early influence on his food experience, introducing him to flavors, foods, and spices that have traveled with him over the years and miles, all the way to Flemington, New Jersey. A lover of Mexican food, Velasco’s favorite part is how the flavors are layered, like acts in a play, each one given a moment to shine before it resolves into a spectacular finale.

Bread has provided a platform where Velasco can be creative – mingling flavors, teasing unexpected taste experiences to show themselves on the canvas of textures and aromas. Our already sublime experience was further expanded when Velasco brought a slice of Biria pizza to our table. This savory, stewed Mexican beef (or chicken or goat) dish was awash with flavor and fragrance. Deliberately saucy and a bit challenging to eat, the Biria, which is normally served with tortillas, overwhelmed the sourdough pizza crust in moments, and it was well worth it. Red chiles, garlic, cilantro, the usual suspects, met Mexican oregano, cinnamon, and saturated braised beef not only on a sourdough pizza crust but also in a croissant. Each version of the birria came with a type of au jus that was flavorful and fatty. Some may initially be put off by the overt display of rendered fat but after a few flavor-laden dips, your conversion will be complete.

But why “Bread and Culture”? I wondered about the name, trying to ascribe a deeper meaning – something lofty and provocative. “The Culture really just stands for the sourdough culture,” Velasco said. That’s it? “That’s it”. Honestly, that fell a bit flat for me. I wanted some mountain top explanation and the visit to the wise sage living alone on a desolate outcrop. I didn’t take into account the complexities of sourdough amid the simplicity of its presentation. Flour, water and sourdough starter. The timing, the blooming of the culture, the temperature of the air around it, and probably most importantly, the patience and attention of the baker. Sourdough seems like a fickle lover whose moods and comportment can vex the most committed baker but apparently, where Velasco is concerned, culinary flirtation can grow into a gastronomic love affair. Through the objections of some family members and, perhaps, even his own doubts, he took a chance on his baking passion for a temperamental dough and has created confections that seemingly a whole town can’t seem to live without.

Bread and Culture regulars the Fine sisters with their weekly purchases.

Bread and Culture stays packed. The gang of regulars grows and seem to know each other and what each other orders. “We are here every weekend. Every weekend.” Mikaela Fine emphatically declares, with her sister Bailey nodding in agreement while eyeing the display case to assure her favorites are still there. My favorite was the morning bun, anything Birria, that Ham and Cheese Croissant. I am holding out for next time to try the Churro Croissant and looking forward to the simplicity of the buttery cinnamon sugar layers and that big sourdough crunch.

Velasco and the gang have been there just over a year and the place is always hopping. Open Thursday through Sunday, 9am-2pm, get there early, taste everything, and take some home. Make friends with the baker because that’s always a good thing. Not too friendly though, the sourdough gets jealous!

Bread and Culture Artisan Bakery, 123 Main Street, Flemington, NJ.

Yum it up. Tell all your friends but make sure they get their own pastries.

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