Flour Power: Phoenix Emerges as a New Capital of Artisan Bread-Making
Since man first learned to harness the power of fire, humans have been using it to cook food. It started with an ostentatious show of roasting whole animals over an open flame -- an unabashed demonstration of how humans now possessed power over both nature and the rest of the animal kingdom.
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As we developed increasingly complex cultures, we sought more sophisticated ways of using fire to make food.
We began to bake.
Unlike cooking meat over fire or boiling plants in a pot, baking constitutes a transformation of nature into an entirely new form, something good to eat -- bread. Ever since the advent of the art, baking has remained a fundamental skill in cultures around the world.
On a hot summer day in Phoenix, baker Claudio Urciuoli continues the tradition.
Dressed in a navy polo and flour-covered light blue apron, the 44-year-old -- who was born in the Campania region of southern Italy and moved to Phoenix in 2006 -- squeezes and presses a ball of wet dough against a wooden table in a small commercial kitchen, his sinewy forearms flexing with the effort. These days, there are far less physically demanding ways to make bread, but Noble Bread, an artisan micro-bakery, does things the old-fashioned way.
These loaves, started at 9 a.m. from a starter begun more than 40 years ago, will see more than a day and a half of careful attention before they ever reach the inside of an oven.
Urciuoli isn't a masochist. He's a purist. During this day and a half, complex chemical reactions within the dough will develop structure and flavor that the baker says are impossible to accurately re-create with chemicals and machinery.
Lauren Saria Urciuoli shapes a loaf of dough by hand.
"It's a very lengthy process you can't speed up," Urciuoli says in a thick Italian accent as he stretches and folds another lump of dough.
Not that industrial bakers don't try.
But each of the hundreds of loaves of bread Urciuoli and Noble Bread partner Jason Raducha, 30, make this week will be produced almost entirely by hand. The two bakers will touch each and every loaf, using the dough's texture to understand the proper adjustments to time and temperature, things that can't be understood by a machine.
Urciuoli worked as executive chef at top Valley restaurants and resorts before joining Noble Bread last year. He finds his new job much more rewarding. This process not only continues the legacy of the artisans before him, but also connects himself to his family's history. Flour is in his blood. He comes from a family of millers and remembers his father bringing home loaves of bread from bakers all over the Italian countryside.
Today, he and Raducha strive to bring that knowledge to the public while, at the same time, make a living. But in the face of a growing portion of the population that sees gluten -- and thus, wheat and bread -- as enemies of good health, it sometimes seems they're fighting a losing battle.
Amid the current trend of gluten intolerance, it seems impossible for health enthusiasts to have their bread and eat it, too. But the other side is gaining steam. The fissure between those who believe gluten is the root of all health evils and those fighting to restore bread to its rightful place on the food pyramid seems to grow wider with every passing meal.
"Now everyone is re-interested," Urciuoli says matter of factly as he works another loaf. "But, you know, it's an ancient thing."