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MediTerra: From a borrowed blob of yeast, a new artisan bakery is born

Thursday, April 04, 2002

By Virginia Phillips

At times it looks like a heavenly nursery, with all its sweet-smelling charges at their long slumbers, tenderly nurtured by hairy-armed men in baseball caps.

Owner Nick Ambeliotis, left, and production manager Rick DeShantz slash prepared bread doughs in preparation for baking in MediTerra ovens. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)


Bread bakeries on the rise


This is the scene at MediTerra Bakehouse, Pittsburgh's newest artisan bakery, where no bread is baked before its time.

Things got under way the last weekend in February when Frank Carolla, master baker and partner in the legendary Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., pulled into the Parkway West Industrial Park, hand-carrying a tremulous blob of dough.

The dough the Zingerman's executive brought was bursting with wild yeast spores essential to the texture and taste of naturally leavened bread. They would be a source of self-perpetuating leavening for the new bakery's bread.

It was a gift that MediTerra's owner, Nick Ambeliotis, 41, of Mt. Lebanon, had been waiting for.

The gift spores were not just any yeasts. They were blueblood offspring of strains present in dough that Michael London, the bread guru's guru, had delivered to Zingerman's 10 years ago.

London, credited with launching the artisan bread movement on the East Coast in the 1980s, is considered one of the best bread bakers in the country. He helped superstars such as Acme Bread in Berkeley and Dean & DeLuca and Balthazar in New York to perfect their skills.

He mentors a few philosophically matched licensees, Zingerman's, Whole Foods and Rock Hill Bakery in New York among them, with Ambeliotis among the newest.

The two met on a food trip to Greece with Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust. Shared food passion led to months of talk.

London now bakes just 100 loaves each day on a stone hearth in his Saratoga Springs bakery. They are 5-pounders, with dark heavy crusts and interiors that stay moist and flavorful for days. This is the kind of bread Ambeliotis learned to love on summer visits to his grandmother on the Greek island of Chios, where people still carry loaves to be baked once a week in communal ovens.

A personal quest

"I wanted to make bread the way they did a couple of hundred years ago," he says, "letting it rise wrapped in linen, the way my grandmother did."

He offers a loaf of his Mt. Athos Fire Bread.

It is very dark, startlingly heavy and etched with flour rings from its rise in a coiled willow basket. Mount Athos is the historic Greek island monastery where the monks make bread and honey.

"This is a 3 1/2-pound loaf." Ambeliotis says. "It has organic wheat ground by a seventh-generation miller in Graham, N.C. It has the wheat germ restored, which makes it darker than our other wheat loaves.

"It will keep on your counter for a week, and I actually prefer it a day old. If you've been to Poilane in Paris, you'll be pleased with this loaf."

He whacks thick wedges out, releasing a wheaty fragrance. The crumb is moist, almost juicy, faintly tangy from the natural starter and protected by a stout quarter-inch crust.

Like the bread immortalized by Omar Khayam, it is filling and deeply satisfying without any top-dressing at all.

The breads are made with natural leavening. Some lighter-textured ones, such as the Sicilian semolina with its tender golden interior and the large-holed rustic, use a bit of commercial yeast in addition.

They run a sweet-to-sour flavor gamut: honey-sweetened multigrain and the pecan raisin to the unsweetened but not-at-all-sour baguette and ciabatta, to the slightly tangy farm, rye and the Parmesan pepper, to the truly sour San Francisco sourdough.

Most flours are small-mill organics, such as corn meal stone-ground by Pittsburgh's own Lyle T. Ferderber of Frankferd Farms in Saxonburg.

Unhulled sesame seeds provide a handsome crust for the Sicilian semolina bread. Raisins from Red Flame grapes, tiny sunflower seeds, fragrant black olives, real Parmigiano cheese and tellicherry pepper flavor the specialty breads.

If Ambeliotis knows anything it is sourcing.

He'd been on the fast track in the food business as importer and distributor of specialty products with Cleveland-based EuroUSA.

"I wanted a lifestyle change," the soft-spoken baker says.

"It might sound corny, but things happened in my life and two or three years ago I was rerouted back to the Orthodox faith. I started to look at things differently. When I learned Nicholas was the patron saint of bakers, I thought I was being pushed."

Michael London helped him to bring in a French oven builder to construct a gas-fueled, heat-retaining behemoth with 12 tons of "tuff," or volcanic ash brick. Bread bakes directly on 250 square feet of hearth stone.

There is also what Carolla calls the "fellowship of bakers," a half-joking explanation for why he didn't simply drop off the starter dough and hasten back to Ann Arbor.

The Zingerman's chief opted instead for a weekend of long workdays, perspiring in shorts and T-shirt in yeast-friendly 80 degrees. He tasted, cut, weighed and shaped raw dough, flopped unbaked loaves onto gurneys, rolled them to the oven, stacked loaves to cool, swept floors, keeping the flour drifts at bay -- with no other motive than to help Ambeliotis make a product as good as his own.

Nick will be doing the same for a new team before long.

The farm bread is ready to come out. "This is exciting," Carolla says, no irony this time.

"We are campaigning for darker crusts," Carolla says, showing a chestnut brown bottom.

"Once people realize, they will always go for the darker crust," Ambeliotis says. "The crumb has more flavor."

We all taste. This signature farm bread requires the longest rise of any, 18 hours. The leavening is a small amount of the natural yeast "starter" called a levain.

A levain is no more than a flour/water mixture providing working conditions the wild yeasts like. They get busy producing enzymes that turn starch into sugar. Good bacteria feed on this sugar and work with the yeast to produce the gases and distinctive flavor that time and the right conditions permit. The farm bread is chewy and a little sour, with a honeycomb texture like French country bread.

The difference a day makes

Carolla explains what sets artisan bread apart.

"The biggest difference is time. Any loaf can take two days to complete. We use much less yeast. And really, really cold water. That's a paradox. You think of proofing yeast in 120-degree water.

"But if at home you did nothing more than cut down the yeast, use cold water and give it time. ... It's the way bread was made long ago. Incredibly laborious."

The crew is giddy with fatigue and satisfaction. Everyone makes trips to the water cooler.

There is serenity amid the action, surrounded by so much baked and unbaked bread, by sacks of organic grains, by racks of medieval-looking unbleached linen covers for the rising breads and the beautiful willow baskets stacked high.

"We live to serve the bread," Carolla jokes. "That's what Michael says."

MediTerra's production manager, Rick DeShantz, has been at it since 4 this morning, when he arrived to prepare the various doughs. It's late afternoon, but racks of bread remain to be baked. Masking-tape labels indicate their hour of oven time. DeShantz, 30, a former Hyeholde sous chef for the talented Keith Luce, has trained all over the United States from five-star ski resorts out west to Norman Van Aken's Norman's in Miami, to the Inn at Little Washington outside Washington, D.C.

The Crafton native bends over raw loaves, using a razor to slash their quivery tops. He makes it look easy. Anyone who's tried it knows it isn't. This artistry will bake into dramatic patterns.

DeShantz has known Ambeliotis for years, buying food products from him for the Hyeholde kitchen. The two did the equivalent of an old-time baker's apprenticeship in a few intense trips to the Ann Arbor bakery.

Andrew Troth, weighing dough on the bench, is a refugee from computer consulting. Beside him is George Brandenstein, former electronic technician with Black Box. Brandenstein comes from the Duquesne Bakery family.

MediTerra gives in to automation twice. A French fork mixer is used to knead. It has two futuristic prongs, set offside to agitate -- and thus warm -- the dough as little as possible, and a French baguette shaper. The thinking is the long loaves gently squeezed out by soft rollers are airier than hand-shaped ones.

When DeShantz takes his floury footprints out the door today he'll give the boss assignments -- cutting the Parmesan for the Parmesan pepper bread, tending the starters, getting this and that batch into the oven and out. Ambeliotis won't get out of there till 8 or 9. It was Lionel Poilane who said if you want to be a baker, you better not plan on sleeping.

This just in: MediTerra's license agreement lets them make Michael London's wife's famous pastries, too. "Before year-end," Ambeliotis says. "We will be producing pastry that Food & Wine said were better than the ones in Paris."


Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator based in Mt. Lebanon.

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