Photo Gallery | Made in the Berkshires: Berkshire Mountain Bakery
GREAT BARRINGTON — Richard Bourdon is a student of bread baking, and on this day his laboratory is located in a small room upstairs at his bakery on Park Street.
Bourdon is using his hands to mix a bowl of flour and water that he had left out the previous night, so that he could work on a formula for a friend who is doing some home baking.
The conversation begins with a discussion on how the fermentation process works on yeast and flour, then broadens into an analysis of what constitutes the grains that breads are made of.
"Without doing something you can't eat it," Bourdon said, referring to the makeup of grains. "it's not good for you."
There's a slight pause.
"We could be here for hours," he said.
Attention to detail combined with a long-standing passion for food, particularly bread, have made Bourdon's business, Berkshire Mountain Bakery, a success both in the Berkshires and beyond.
The baker/owner, Bourdon uses traditional techniques to create bread that is hand shaped and naturally leavened with sourdough fermentation.
"Sourdough is the original, and in my opinion, only way to process grains to make them digestible," Bourdon said.
In 2010, his breads caught the attention of Bon Appetit Magazine, which listed Berkshire Mountain Bakery as one of its "Top 10 Best Bread Bakeries in America." Eight of the other 10 bakeries on that list were located in major cities.
"A national treasure," is how that article's writer, Andrew Knowlton, described the little bakery beside the Housatonic River. "A must-visit for every bread lover."
Barefoot in the Berkshires
The recognition didn't stop there. Fans of the television cooking show "The Barefoot Contessa" may have noticed host Ina Garten stopping at Berkshire Mountain Bakery to buy a loaf of bread during her recent holiday show that featured a weekend in the Berkshires. The show aired locally on the Food Network Dec. 13.
Locally, Bourdon's sourdough pizza crusts became extremely popular at the Berkshire-based Baba Louie's pizza chain (Berkshire Mountain Bakery and Baba Louie's no longer work together). The success has continued in the "take and bake" pizzas that he creates and sells out of Berkshire Mountain Bakery's other store on Elm Street in Pittsfield.
Bourdon recently began selling those same pizza crusts to local colleges and boarding schools. Smith College in Northampton and the Berkshire School in Sheffield are two of his clients.
Bourdon, who arrived slightly late for this interview dressed in a flour-stained tee-shirt and jeans, is nonplussed about the recognition that his bakery has received.
"I am proud to be doing what I said I was going to do, it's good to know that you're making a difference and that I'm influencing others in a good way," he said. "But I'm not very good at banking on it. I'm not really good at marketing. Bakeries that started at the same time I did (1985) have financially grown to the several millions. I'm just a mid-size bakery."
Berkshire Mountain Bakery has annual sales exceeding $1 million a year, according to its website. But intellectual curiosity is more important to Bourdon than financial results.
"I'm a student and I'm prone to change," Bourdon said. "What you want in business is concrete results. Like repeat and do it and don't change. Well, if something needs to change..."
Bourdon provides an example.
"I got away from being so adamant about (using) organic grain. I'm more interested in grains that are from no-till agriculture.
"Imagine if I had all my marketing built around organic now," he said, "and then I want to switch to no-till because it's a better way for the planet. So I would want to change everything.
"Well, Christ, the board would hate me," he added. "They'd say Richard you've got to go, you can't do this now. And I'd say I don't care."
Bourdon developed his intellectual curiosity at an early age. One of 10 children, he grew up in the small community of Ville Marie in northwestern Quebec where he used to help his mother bake bread.
"As a young person I wanted to learn so I asked her to show me how to make something," he said.
At 22, Bourdon traveled to The Hague Conservatory of Music in The Netherlands to study the french horn, but his interest in food didn't wane.
When his music career faltered, Bourdon decided to pursue to concentrate on food. He placed an ad in a Dutch newspaper seeking a position as either a baker or a farmer.
"Whoever calls first, the farmer or the baker, that was what I was going to do," he said. "The baker called first."
But it wasn't just any bakery that Bourdon had gone to. He'd become interested in natural foods while living in Europe, so he applied to a bakery that made sourdough-style bread.
"Being involved in natural food I knew that that kind of bread was the right kind of bread to make," he said. "I started to learn and expand my knowledge."
Bourdon left that bakery for another bakery, then began traveling around Europe visiting other bakeries to hone his craft.
"I was a fanatic. It's like anything. Jimmy Page only played guitar in school," Bourdon said, referring to the lead guitarist of the rock group Led Zeppelin. "He didn't do anything else. I worked with a woman who went to school with him. She said he did one thing and one thing only."
In 1985, Bourdon met Michio and Aveline Kushi, the founders of the Kushi Institute in Becket, while they were in The Netherlands. The couple convinced him to move to the Berkshires and open his own bakery.
Bourdon, who had three small children, arrived in the United States with $300 in his pocket. Because the wheat in the U.S. ferments differently than the wheat in Europe, it took awhile for Bourdon to apply the techniques that he had learned overseas here. But once he did, Bourdon's bread baking technique became popular in the Berkshires. A woman from Chicago who attended the Kushi Institute was so taken with Bourdon's bread that in 1987 she loaned him enough money to move his business from Becket to its current location, a former mill building that was constructed in 1895.
In 2013, Bourdon opened his store in Pittsfield. He's interested in opening other outlets, but isn't sure where yet. Expect him to study those possibilities with the same curiosity that he used to study the baking of bread.
"I will always be opening to learning more, of course," Bourdon said. "A perpetual student, that's the only way to be."