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Close to his hearth: Bread baking is poetry to businessman's soul

Thursday, October 22, 1998

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet, as flour goes into the making of bread."

- Pablo Neruda

The weather is cool and crisp. Haunches of beef turn on a spit, turkeys roast in the oven. Loaves of homemade bread rise in pans. Guests arrange their covered-dish casseroles on a makeshift buffet outside the log cabin. Kids grab cups of apple cider and run into the woods to hunt pumpkins. Grown-ups stir the apple butter burbling in a 40-gallon copper cauldron. In the gazebo, teenage boys set up chairs for the Catholic Mass that evening. Musicians in flannel shirts and wool sweaters play folk music.

This harvest celebration is an Irish fleadh. The old Gaelic word, pronounced flaw, is a musical gathering and feast in the woods. The host is Ray Werner. He and Susan, his wife of 32 years, started their annual fleadh about eight years ago at their cabin in the Allegheny Mountains.

Many people know Werner as the ad man he's been for 32 years. He is senior vice president and general manager of Bozell Kamstra, an advertising and public relations agency based in the Strip District.

He wears other hats. A musician and poet, Werner is an enthusiastic amateur bread baker. And the star of the fleadh is a brand new wood-burning brick oven.

"Bread has been made this way for thousands of years," says Werner. "Baking bread makes me feel good to be alive. To see it, to smell it. It's a great part of my life."

The brick oven

The oven looks like a miniature house, about 6 by 8 feet with a pitched roof. The actual hearth area is 36 by 48 inches. The oven can hold 25 to 30 loaves of bread, or about 110 rolls. It will bake a lot of pizzas.

Around the oven is a timber-framed shelter, built of Eastern white pine cut on this mountain. The post-and-beam construction with mortise and tenon joinery was built using hand tools for 90 percent of the work. There are only 70 nails in the entire structure.

"At last I have a roof over the oven," says Werner. "Now I can bake out here in all kinds of weather. It looks a lot like a chapel, doesn't it? This will be here 100 years from now."

Werner lights the fire about 5 to 6 hours in advance of baking, using wood cut from his property. "Building the fire is part of the bread-baking experience," says Werner. "When a baking session is over, I always set logs in place for the next fire so they have time to dry."

To measure the oven temperature, Werner uses an industrial heat gun. "I aim the gun into the oven, point it where I want, pull the trigger, and I get a digital readout." When the oven reaches 600 degrees, Werner pulls out the remains of the fire with an ash rake. Then he lets the oven cool to just below 600 degrees, depending on the density of the bread to be baked. Now he mops the hearth surface of ash. In goes the bread, and the door is closed. The oven is now a chamber of radiant heat.

Sometimes Werner uses pans for his bread; other times he cooks directly on the hearth stone. To transfer the dough to the oven, he uses a wooden paddle called a peel. "I have one that was made for me as a gift by a local craftsman," says Werner. "It's made of walnut, cherry and bird's eye maple. It's too beautiful to use every day."

Becoming a baker

"I grew up with bread," says Werner, 60. "There were always a lot of people in our house. In the evening, friends and family would get together. They'd recite poetry and sing. And Dad would tell stories. During the Depression, Dad and a friend would bake bread all night. Next day they would sell the loaves from a truck. They'd make a dollar a day.

"When I was 16, I asked Dad to teach me to bake bread. My bread was awful. But once you do it, it stays with you."

Through the years, Werner often baked on Saturdays and for special occasions. "It got me out of a lot of other jobs at home."

In 1986, he wanted to get away from Downtown, so he left Ketchum Advertising to start his own creative shop in the Strip District.

A renovated firehouse on Penn Avenue became the home of Werner Brother. "I'd get to work early and mix up some bread. While I did my work, the bread did its work. Soon I was baking bread once or twice a week. I'd pass it out as a snack and just give it away. If the Fed Ex guy commented on how good the place smelled, he got a loaf."

He met a guy in Florida who made bread every day to sell to a church. They made bread together. He found an old Hobart mixer in the Strip. "I was now a committed baker. The more I thought about bread, the more I thought about a better way to bake it. I started looking for a place to build a brick oven."

Werner decided to build an oven on his own land. In 1981, he, his teenage boys and nephews built a log cabin in the Allegheny Mountains, about 90 miles from Pittsburgh. "It would be the perfect site for a brick oven, and it wouldn't bother anyone."

On the Internet, Werner found Alan Scott, a master builder of brick ovens. He builds them the way they were built hundreds of years ago, but he uses modern materials.

Scott, an Aussie blacksmith, got into the business by accident. He was living in a vegetarian commune in California when Laurel Robertson, the author of the classic "Laurel's Kitchen" asked if he could build her a hearth oven. He did, and never looked back. Scott's company, Oven Crafters, is based in Petaluma.

The Werners bought a set of his plans for $100, a reasonable price, according to Werner.

Now someone had to build the oven.

Enter, Mike Shaffer.

Shaffer, 45 of Wilkins, is a former financial analyst whose interests in woodworking and bread baking expanded, and his interest in corporate life decreased. "I threw my suit in the closet in 1993," Shaffer says. "Now I work with my hands."

As luck would have it, Shaffer apprenticed with Scott in 1995 when the latter was commissioned to build a hearth oven for Steve and Karen Getz, formerly of Butler.

In January 1997, Shaffer began Werner's oven, and by late fall the shelter was complete. "The pleasure we shared was contagious," according to Werner. "It was like spreading the gospel."

A part of life

Werner keeps a fat green leather album of hand-lettered recipes and commentary and addresses of experts and places that sell flours.

"I'll put anything in my bread. We put in elderberries last summer and they were nutty and great. And I can't go wrong in The Strip. Anything I can buy there will probably be good in a loaf of bread."

Werner gets up to the cabin a couple of times a month. He makes his bread from organic flour and well water. He might make some regular, good-tasting white bread, many-grain loaves, some rolls and pizza. Raisin bread is his specialty.

"There are no disasters in bread baking. A so-so loaf of bread can always be made into croutons. And over the years I've made my share of deer food."

Werner is a soft touch " I got together with some friends and we decided to make bread for the homeless through Operation Safety Net, a program at Mercy Hospital. We borrowed the bakery at Il Piccolo Forno in The Strip one night and made 180 loaves of my special Christmas Raisin Bread. Then we helped to deliver them to the homeless all over the city. One fellow who lived in a doorway said, 'You got any peanut butter to go with this?' "

Poetry and music have always been a part of his life. "I've even had people write poems to me about bread."

Werner plays anglo concertina - a squeeze box - in the Irish band Hooley of six musicians and two dancers.

"Poetry, music and bread have so much in common," says Werner. They are ancient, timeless and necessary. All require sharing and passion. To be good at each of them, you need a lot of practice. It's hard work. You have to stick to fundamentals. Bread is different from the other two in that it's healthful and tastes good, too.

He dreams of having " a store devoted to bread. "In Europe, people in small towns bring their bread dough to a communal oven. Well, I'd have a community brick oven in The Strip. It would be a place where people could come once or twice a month to bake their own bread. I'd have special flours for sale, and books to read on bread baking. We'd even hold bread-baking classes. I'd teach kids to bake.

"Baking bread feels good, and it teaches generosity and sharing."

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