By Laura Hill
It’s six in the morning, a time when most people are turning over and snuggling down for that last blessed half hour of sleep. For David Tannen, however, the day is well under way – elbow deep, in fact – in flour, water and yeast.
For most bakers, this pre-dawn drill is familiar stuff. But Tannen’s routine is a little different, an echo of a millenniums-old tradition that has more in common with a medieval farm wife’s ritual than that of a modern-day bread baker.
“People have been baking bread in just this way forever,” Tannen says as he dashes from the cooler, where today’s dough waits to be patted into loaves, into the room where, through its open mouth, you can see impressive orange flames scouring the roof of his hand-made brick oven. (Watch a video of Tannen here.)
“My bread is good for you,” he says, “bread that really is the staff of life.”
Artisan Baking Rises in Popularity
Tannen is one of a growing group of artisan bakers who make their bread from additive- and preservative-free ingredients and then bake it the time-honored way in brick ovens fired with wood. Dense, chewy and flavorful, his bread bears little resemblance to commercially produced bread, even from high-end specialty bakeries.
Tannen’s Twin Forks Farm bread comes in four varieties: Bohemian Three-Seed, Expedition, Country and Raisin. The recipes are gleaned from friends and colleagues, as well as from his own imagination. Tannen’s whole-wheat flour comes from an employee-owned mill in Vermont. The flour is supplemented with other natural ingredients such as rye, millet, buckwheat, barley, oats, flax and sesame seed. While his breads have a very nominal amount of salt, they have no added sugar, eggs, fats or dairy, and Tannen uses no commercial yeast, preferring his own natural starter.
A Day at Twin Forks Farm
Tannen’s bakery is a two-room metal building that adjoins the home on his 60-acre Twin Forks Farm in Primm Springs, Tenn., located in rural Hickman County about 45 miles southwest of Nashville. Pulling up to the farm, you’re greeted by a couple of lackadaisical farm dogs and through the open screen door comes a reassuring call, “They’re friendly – don’t worry.”
Tannen greets you with a floury hand. Tall, lanky, in his early 50s with close-cropped hair and glasses, he looks more like a college professor than a baker. He came to his new career, his passion, in 2007, though, he says, “I have always been interested in providing people with nutritious food.”
He began cooking as a child in Memphis but got serious in the kitchen in his late 20s. Over time, his interest in healthy food broadened, and he turned from being a successful jewelry salesman to a successful salesman of nutritional products.
Tannen and his wife, Laura, who works in commercial real estate banking, left a home in suburban Nashville several years ago to try their hand at farming, a longstanding dream of his. Within a couple of years, though, he found out, “It was just too much work for one person.”
In the meantime, Tannen rediscovered a book about brick ovens he had bought years before, after hearing the author, Kiko Denzer, interviewed on public radio. He decided to build an oven himself, a mound of clay, rocks and brick.
“These ovens are the same all over the world,” says Tannen, who dug the clay for his first oven, now a landmark in his farmyard, from a hillside 20 feet away. “You’ll find that the height is 62 percent of the width when they function well, and no one really knows why. All these different cultures have discovered this same ratio.”
His first brick oven built, Tannen began baking bread – four loaves at a time, which was all that the oven could hold.
“It tended to get a little burned, but people loved it,” he says. And so did Tannen, who had discovered a new vocation.
He built his second brick oven in 2007, following plans from Ovencrafters, the creation of Alan Scott, co-author of the brick-oven lover’s bible, The Bread Builders. A vast improvement over his first effort, his current indoor oven can hold 42 loaves of bread at a time. It takes two days to prepare the oven for baking in order to adequately heat the 10 inches of concrete that surround the oven. Fueled by hickory heartwood sticks, at times temperatures near 1,000 degrees, though baking temperature is far less.
“Time and temperature are absolutely critical in making bread. If you are not precise with them, you’re really just taking a shot in the dark,” says Tannen, explaining a lesson learned through painful trial and error.
After mixing precisely weighed flour, water and his homemade starter with his hands, Tannen lets the resulting dough rest in a cooler for several hours, an 18- to 22-hour fermentation that results in more intense flavor, enhanced nutritional value and easier digestibility, he says. After the dough rises, and is kneaded and risen again, it is made into rough loaves, then reformed and baked directly on the brick floor of the oven, which Tannen scrubs after he has raked off the hot coals.
He bakes twice a week, which he describes as “really a four-day deal.” In the winter he bakes about 120 loaves a week, triple that in the spring, and hopes to grow to a maximum of 500 loaves a week – “the most I could do and keep my sanity.”
Where To Buy
Tannen sells his Twin Forks Farm bread at the Franklin Farmers’ Market during its open season. It’s also available year round at the Whole Foods locations in Cool Springs and Green Hills, both Turnip Truck locations in Nashville, the Produce Place on Murphy Road in Nashville, Nutrisha in Nashville, Fresh Harvest in Thompson’s Station, Dr. Schrock’s in Dickson and Centerville Marketplace in Centerville. For more info, call (931) 729-9745 or visit their Facebook page.