Legendary Vermont Bakers May Stop Selling Beloved Sourdough Bread : The Salt The bread that Jules and Helen Rabin have made in their fieldstone oven for four decades has a cult following in central Vermont. But this may be the last summer they sell it at the farmers market.

Legendary Vermont Bakers May Stop Selling Beloved Sourdough Bread

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/341372257/341958819" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When Jules Rabin lost his job teaching anthropology some 37 years ago, he and his wife Helen turned to baking to keep their family afloat. They began making and selling sourdough bread. People in central Vermont ate it up. But as Jon Kalish reports, as this summer draws to a close, Rabin bread may also be nearing its last loaf.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: At five a.m., 90-year-old Jules Rabin stokes the fire in his brick and stone oven. Later in the morning, Rabin uses a burlap coffee sack to mop up ash from the oven floor.

JULES RABIN: This whole enterprise is based on shmatte technology.

KALISH: Shmatte is the Yiddish word for rag. The Rabin's replica of a 19th-century peasant oven was built with 70 tons of fieldstone. Jules Rabin gathered all that stone from local fields with his wife, Helen.

HELEN RABIN: I'm especially proud because after 35, 40 years, it hasn't fallen down. (Laughter).

KALISH: At 73, Helen Rabin is still able to lift 50-pound sacks of flour and grain in the bake house behind the couple's home in Marshfield. Their loaves have only been available in central Vermont. The Rabins refuse an order for their white, rye and whole wheat sourdough bread from the gourmet food store Zabar's.

H. RABIN: You know, the formula for the bread itself and the flour and the sourdough is really available to anybody. But if our bread is different - and people say it is, and I think it's somewhat different from what most other people make - it has to be the oven.

KALISH: Helen Rabin has kept her original batch of sourdough starter going since the late 1970s. The Rabins retired in 2002, but started baking again a few years ago when their grandson needed a summer job. Every Friday during the summer, they bake 90 loaves of sourdough bread.

J. RABIN: I'm simply the oven man. I - my work is crude. It involves some skills but Helen is the heart of this work. That's all I can say.

KALISH: The Rabins inspired several wood-fired bakeries in Vermont. Robert Hunt runs Bohemia Bread in Marshfield.

ROBERT HUNT: Brick oven bakeries are popping up all over the country. But before the Rabins nobody really thought of making a living selling bread out of a wood-fired oven in the countryside.

KALISH: The Rabin's daughter Nessa is a pastry chef at a local food co-op. She helps bake and sell bread at the Plainfield Farmer's Market on Fridays where the sourdough loaves go quickly. It's the only place the bread is sold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The early bird gets the baguette.

N. RABIN: Come on, early bird.

KALISH: The weekly trip to the farmer's market is also a time for socializing with fans and friends, like Eleanor Randall and her husband Leonard Irving.

ELEANOR RANDALL: This rye bread - oh, my god. It's so good. It's just moist and grainy. And the taste is solid - makes you think you're in France for a little while.

LEONARD IRVING: There's no better bread than Jules' and Helen's. It's the best. And, of course, baked the same morning - you can't beat that.

KALISH: That Rabin bread will be available for two more weeks. The couple says that at their age, they're not sure if they'll bake again next summer. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in Vermont.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.