I first met Ray Powers more than 25 years ago, personally selling his wonderful hand-crafted loaves of peasant bread from the tailgate of his venerable Volvo at a farmers’ market in Rutland, Vermont. The chance meeting was to become – for me – not only an important chapter in my search for brick hearth bakers around the country, but the beginning of a dawning realization that my own life has been enriched by touching shoulders with a pantheon of remarkable people who live life purposefully and with a special passion for what they do.
After that first day, I found my way to the top of a wooded country road outside Wallingford to the yellow-painted farmhouse where Ray and Christine Powers had settled to raise a family and bake old-world bread. I spent much of the next three days, warmed by the immense brick hearth attached to the renovated country home, observing the process which converted naturally-leavened whole grain loaves from starter to finished product, while absorbing the unusual personal story of the two lives united by this task they loved. Fired by lengths of dry and cured hardwood fed to a baking fire which was started at 4:00 AM, the mammoth brick hearth – built by an itinerant bricklayer from Maine who was himself plowing new and unexplored ground – the oven would reach an internal temperature of 800 degrees. The first batch of 100 risen loaves would take only 25 minutes to bake, as billows of steam would be added to develop a crisp outer crust from time to time, with Ray constantly moving the loaves to different places inside with his long-handled wooden peel to insure a uniform finish.
A second batch of 100 loaves would go in next, with a reduced temperature of 600 degrees requiring an added 10 or 15 minutes of hearth time, followed by a third and final batch, all going on as Christine moved the finished loaves to just the right spot on the cooling racks which circled the hearth room, and readying the next baskets of rising dough in their time.
With the day’s baking completed, the husband-and-wife team would use a slab of unbaked dough to leaven a new batch of dough turning slowly in their ancient mixing machine destined to cure for 48 hours before the next baking day, producing at least three variations including whole-grain rye, French-style baguette and raisin-filled wheat loaves.
Warmed by the tons of brick and wonderful aromas of baking bread which surrounded us, and the meeting of minds shared as we lunched on slices of rye and fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes, I listened to the unusual story of the shared dream which had given birth to it all.
When the two met – rather late in life – Ray was a Jesuit Priest teaching students in an English school in Bagdad, Iraq and Christine was herself a Catholic Nun. Dating back to the fifteenth century, the “Society of Jesus” – the Jesuits - is one of the oldest and most mission-oriented orders in the Catholic Faith, and it is unusual for a Father with the SJ after his name to leave the calling. Ray and Christine however had each arrived at a point in their lives where they felt inspired to seek a path which would allow them to have a family. With a release from the church hierarchy, they married and began a search for a place to live and a work they could share. They wished to live in a country environment, and to pursue an artisan craft which would benefit everyday people and provide a simple but satisfying sustenance. Journeying across Europe, they fell in love with the whole concept of village baking, tied to a history which was honorable and an ethic which was planted in long-established roots. In all their travels in America, they felt most comfortable in the Green Mountains of Vermont where they bought an abandoned farm on Bear Mountain.
I once asked Ray if they had found success in the life they were leading. He looked at me and said: “It all depends on what you call success. We are raising two wonderful and talented children, we live in a beautiful place and are engaged in an honest daily task we enjoy. Our home is paid for, we have no debt more than thirty days old, and we have our faith.”
In a world and at a time when we are told by experts that the average working adult will change jobs seven times in a lifetime, I am comforted to know and be uplifted by people like my friends, Ray and Christine Powers – true VILLAGE BAKERS.
Ray Powers removes finished loaves of country bread from his mammoth brick hearth oven at the time of an early visit years ago. Ray bakes three days each week, devoting the other days to selling and delivering finished product.
It is reassuring each year to find Ray and Christine Powers of “Bear Mountain Bakers” still selling their hand-crafted loaves at the Rutland, Vermont Farmers’ Market, this picture taken at the time of a recent visit.