The aroma of freshly made bread wafted across the room. While waiting for Andre Kempton, my nose led me to the kitchen, where handmade loaves were baked.
There was a sheet of chocolate chip cookies nearby. A pot of soup bubbled on the stove.
It was lunchtime at Wild Leaven Bakery and Café in Taos.
Owner and baker Andre Kempton attended culinary school at Santa Fe Community College. Afterwards, he ran a lunch program at a local charter school for two years. He also did some catering until he found his true calling in the business of bread.
Kempton studied baking at Cloud Cliff Bakery & Café in Santa Fe with Willem Malten, a Dutch master baker who helped start the Northern New Mexico Organic Wheat Project in the 1990s.
“He taught me a lot about organic products, fermentation and the relationship between yeast, fungus and bacteria with the dough,” Kempton said. “There is science behind it. Bread gets its unique flavor from the bacteria, while yeast supplies the rising power. The microorganisms are the true champions of the bread-making process. They are like seeds for farmers. Farmers tend the seeds and we tend the microorganisms.”
Kempton began selling bread at the Taos Farmers Market four years ago. Though he was still living in Santa Fe at that time, he decided to open a brick-and-mortar business in Taos in March 2016.
“The majority of my clients are here, so I finally moved to Taos,” he said. “When I opened the bakery, I had my local, loyal Taoseño customers in mind.”
Bread and more
Wild Leaven Bakery sells around a dozen varieties of bread.
“The most popular kinds are green and red chile cheese bread, sourdough and whole-grain German bread,” Kempton said.
The Yucca Plaza space is also home to the café with a made-from-scratch menu that changes practically every day.
“We offer two soups daily, one vegan and another with meat or vegetarian,” Kempton said. “We also make sandwiches and pizzas. My family is from Italy, so you will find many Italian dishes and salsas, like marinara, and other foods with an Italian twist. I use cheese, mushrooms and mountain oregano that I pick up myself.”
The sandwich special on this day was grilled cheese and pesto on a French whole-wheat baguette. The featured soup was local potato and coconut curry. It was spicy, but pleasantly so.
There are specialty drinks, like hot tea with osha, ginger, honey and homemade vinegar.
“[It’s] great if you have a cold,” Kempton said. “We make our own sodas with orange zest, hibiscus and honey. And for those who like manteca, we have house-rendered pig lard for sale.”
Wild Leaven also has buckwheat banana bread, molasses ginger cookies, pecan red chile honey bars and the business’ own version of a chocolate chip cookie made with molten sea salt.
“I am happy to offer my clients nourishment that comes from close to the land,” Kempton said. “We now have a niche clientele, people who appreciate baked goods and healthy food in general.”
Rooted in the past
The rise of the artisan bread movement has brought back old skills and baking techniques that have been perfected to an art form over the years. Bakers take pride in their products’ unique flavors and texture.
But what does artisan bread mean, exactly?
“The term refers to bread made in small batches with pesticide-free, all-natural ingredients and a long fermentation time,” Kempton said. “And that’s what we do here. I use only organic ingredients and mostly locally grown grain from Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Many of them are old varieties of rye, wheat and barley.”
Almost all the bread sold at Wild Leaven Bakery is fermented for 12 to 24 hours.
“That lends the bread more nutritional benefits and better flavor,” Kempton said. “The process can’t be rushed.”
Looking to the future
At this moment, the only place to buy Kempton’s products is at the bakery, but he also plans to sell his bread in grocery stores.
He sees his bakery as a link in a longer chain — the chain of the small grain economy.
“This includes farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, the breweries that buy the grain and the consumer who buys the bread and eats it,” he said. “I would like to see that chain grow and expand all over the region. I just don’t want to sell the bread, but support our local food economy so we all have food security — at least a few months’ worth of bulk commodities to feed people in case of an emergency.”
Wild Leaven ciabatta
• 2.5 pounds organic Sangre de Cristo flour
• 4 ounces olive oil
• 8 ounces milk
• 24 ounces water
• 1.5 tablespoons sea salt
• 2 tablespoons dry yeast
(For herbed ciabatta, add 2 tablespoons dried, crushed wild oregano and 2 tablespoons dried, crushed rosemary).
Mix all ingredients into bowl until incorporated, let sit covered overnight on counter.
Next day, cut or tear off small handfuls of dough and roll through flour. Put them on a well-greased glass casserole pan or greased cookie sheet. Let them sit for an hour or two. Bake at high heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until dark golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped on their bottoms. Let cool on a cooling rack or oven rack.