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The Sourdough Boulangerie looks forward and back with ancient-grain breads



Twenty one years baking, but Saunders still experiments. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Twenty one years baking, but Saunders still experiments.

I'm at Shawn Saunders' Sourdough Boulangerie, located inside Ranch Foods Direct's soon-to-relocate retail market. As it stands now, the bakery consists of two half-sheet-tray ovens in a prep corner of a converted employee breakroom. It's not much to see, but the breads produced here are something to experience.

Presently, cinnamon laces the air so strongly that I'm wincing to hold back sneezes. Saunders and an assistant are mid-bake on cinnamon rolls (sold at The Downtown Perk and Mother Muff's) that are damn near as big as one of those Devo dome hats. I'm told the rolls are fantastic, but I'm not here for them. Instead, I'm after loaves of einkorn and emmer wheat, made with a 350-year-old Italian sourdough starter and organic grains, grown in Canada and Montana, respectively, and ground for Saunders by Monte Vista's Mountain Mama Milling.

Einkorn's the most ancient, unhybridized wheat, with a grain size about half that of the modern stuff. It was one of the first plants domesticated, around 10,000 years ago in Turkey. Emmer, slightly younger, is a hybrid of two wild grasses, and was the majority wheat of the biblical era, more widely cultivated over time, including in the American Northeast during early settlement.

Both hold more protein, minerals and fiber compared to today's refined commercial wheat, hybridized to increase yield, plus gluten for bread textures. The two Es have gained attention in part due to Dr. William Davis' catalyzing book, Wheat Belly, which reminds readers that two slices of today's whole wheat bread raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar, boosting insulin levels, which in turn encourages fat deposition. Davis acknowledges that some gluten-sensitive people do better on the ancient grains, which do still contain gluten — he calls them "less harmful," though not "harmless."

If a rendition exists that's got the best shot of not upsetting the masses, many of the Boulangerie's customers say it's Saunders' emmer and einkorn loaves. Firstly, Saunders' sourdough starter, versus commercial starter yeast, makes the gluten more digestible. That's thanks to lactic acids in the starter that neutralize the grains' inherent phytic acid, known to inhibit enzymes critical to digestion, according to the nutritional education nonprofit The Weston A. Price Foundation. The lactic acids also slow glucose's release into the blood, lowering the bread's glycemic index, making these breads available to diabetics, too, as Saunders' own father will attest.

Saunders says he became interested in the ancient grains after working with quinoa and amaranth for his 15-grain bread. Stumbling upon a Wheat Belly feature on PBS further informed his skepticism about gluten sensitivity. After more research, he's now of the opinion most people's sudden gluten sensitivities are actually related to glyphosate, the herbicide found in Monsanto's Roundup, which is why he moved his entire product line to organic grains last February.

"Initially, I said, no, going organic is too expensive," he says. But then he did the math, only having to raise his prices on his regular sourdough loaf from $5 to $5.40, for example. Since that time, his sales have doubled.

His endorsement of sourdoughs stems from the fact that his is properly fermented — for 24 hours to create a balanced, "nice, smooth sour, not an overly tart flavor" — as was traditionally done in primitive bread-making.

Now 42, the Springs native began baking in 1994 at the fledgling Phantom Canyon, where he later became a corporate baker and trainer for the Wynkoop brand, not departing until 2000. He then left baking for a long stint to cook in a variety of kitchens, including the Cliff House and Dale Street Café, before starting Shawn's Bakery in 2004. He became a familiar face at CFAM farmers markets until 2009, abandoning that for another cooking stint, during which some ugly personal matters forced him to confront what type of future he wished to forge. The ultimate result was this Boulangerie, launched in early 2014.

His customers now include the Burrowing Owl, Wild Goose, Skirted Heifer, McCabe's, Brother Luck Street Eats and The Warehouse. Chef James Africano, who just recently reopened the latter, says a call to Saunders was one of the first he made upon returning to town. Africano too arose from Phantom's early days; Saunders had trained him as a baker during a two-week rotation.

"In my mind, Shawn's a part of the culinary foundation of the Springs," he says. "He's fanatical about his ingredients and his process, and it shows in everything he does."

That comment makes me think back to the Adam-Real-Last-Name-Unknown character in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. He's the brilliant but completely disheveled and unreliable master of "primordial oozes," random batches of abandoned bread starters, which when actually finished, are "simply divine."

Bourdain writes, "To see his bread coming out of the oven, to smell it, that deeply satisfying spiritually comforting waft of yeasty goodness, to tear into it, breaking apart that floury, dusty crust and into the ethereally textured interior ... to taste it is to experience real genius."

Saunders, lanky with glasses and a Lincoln-like beard, acts more professional, if quirky and outspoken on social media, and says if there is a true mad-baker persona, "I'm living it, so I wouldn't really know." He adds that he does work "stupid hours," at least one 24-hour shift a week. He's on two hours sleep the day we talk.

A friend oversees his 50 chickens, who last week gifted him 20 dozen eggs. He has no organized product list currently, nor a website for online ordering. (It's coming...) But he makes about 20 different items, from pastries and holiday breads to Jewish rye, and croissants. He anticipates that'll grow to upwards of 40 items this year, once he's also selling at the Colorado Springs Public Market and Ranch Foods Direct's east-side facility.

But, again, I'm here just for two breads ($7.99 each/26-ounces). I nab the einkorn just out of the oven, removing it from a steamy plastic sleeve back home, knifing through a crunchy crust to reveal a notably dense, dark-almond-colored core. It's equally hearty in the bite and flavor, which Saunders likens to something between a wheat and rye profile, calling it wilder and "greener," perhaps the wine equivalent of a Beaujolais Nouveau, we agree.

I crave a German beer with it. And really, the emmer tastes quite similar, purchased frozen and becoming slightly more crumbly post-thaw if not warmed properly. (Because of the active enzyme quality, they spoil quickly at room temps, so they're sold frozen and recommended to be stored in a fridge.) Both breads are fantastic with an extra sprinkle of sea salt and a thick spread of Kerrygold butter.

I've intentionally skipped describing their smell, because I can't do better than chef/author Dan Barber does it in The Third Plate, detailing his experience in his Stone Barnes kitchen, taming emmer wheat. Upon house grinding, his baker smells dirt, "no, not dirt. Nature. ... like going on vacation with my parents in the summertime when I was kid, in the field when the wind blows through the wheat."

From their ovens they eventually pull an experimental brioche, "rich russet brown," and smelling like "nutty apricot." Barber writes that it "was delicious, comforting in a way bread should be, but also a little exciting, with a flavor of toasted nuts and wet grass." (There's that greenness.) They later try that same recipe with conventional whole wheat, describing a sad smell that's "dusty like an old closet."

Saunders says he's still "in the infancy stages" of mastering the emmer and einkorn, "learning how they act with more or less hydration, and evoking flavors by different temperatures and fermentation times."

But already he's onto something special, a thoughtful niche item that not only reclaims the past, but foretells an almost certain future of where our food systems must go, for our health. Though I don't typically accept prophecy from a fanatic, I find grains of truth here.

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