by Mike Corrigan

We can all leave it to the bakers and the brewers to duke it out over the particulars, but what we do know about the origins of civilization leads us to one inescapable conclusion: at some point roughly 10,000 years ago, humans said to themselves, "Screw this hunting and gathering crap, let's grow stuff." That "stuff" was grain -- wheat and rice, initially -- and the reason they grew it was so they could free themselves from chasing animals around.

Cultivation is control, a degree of mastery over natural forces. Grain is versatile and can be stored for long periods of time. The foods produced with grain are delicious and nourishing. And so humans built primitive bakeries (and breweries) -- and the civilizations of the ancient world rose up around them. Bread, of course, emerged as a dietary staple, while beer was relegated to partying. If it had been the other way around, civilization might not have lasted very long.

Bread evolved with civilization from early unleavened breads to more complex yeast breads. In 40 BC, Roman law decreed that bread should be distributed free to all adult male citizens. In medieval times, white bread became a symbol of nobility. An 18th-century Englishman used bread to invent the sandwich.

The industrial revolution of the 19th century refined milling, mixing and baking processes, and the transportation revolution of the mid-20th century opened up distribution. As a handful of large bakeries began to rub out the little guys, breads in this country became more homogenous, less nutritious and less interesting.

Fortunately, regional bakeries are gaining a foothold in the local bread market and are helping to redefine what bread is -- and more significantly, what it can be. They produce breads of character, with complex textures and flavors. Local supermarkets Rosauers and its health food spinoff, Huckleberry's, provide a retail outlet for these products and offer an easy way for us to integrate them into our daily lives. Huckleberry's in particular stocks a massive array of fresh, regionally baked bread from such Spokane bakeries as Cobblestone, Hearthbread, Fontana and Great Harvest, as well as the Flour Mill Bakery in Hayden Lake. Just as Inland Northwest's beer lovers have been treated to the handcrafted microbrew revival in the past couple of decades, people bored with the same old white bread have been given more choices by local bakers in recent years.

Dave and Pat Frazier have owned and operated the Flour Mill Bakery since 1986. Their breads are not only certified organic but are made with flour ground on site moments before being turned into dough.

"Everybody else is buying their flour," says Dave Frazier. " I come in each morning, grind the flour and then I bake. That makes the bread rise higher, and the flavor is better. You can take two identical bread recipes, and the one made with fresh ground flour will always taste better."

"We really only make one particular kind of bread," says local breadman and chef, Brett Fontana. "It's a flatbread with herbs, garlic and extra virgin olive oil baked right in." Fontana's signature bread is available at local Rosauers stores. A chef at the Hayden Lake Country Club, Fontana developed his recipe 12 years ago after the inspiration hit him during a trip to Europe. "My wife and I were amazed at all the good bread they have over there." His standard reply when asked what makes Fontana bread so special? "The most important ingredients," he says, "are pride and patience."

The nearly windowless, bunker-like Cobblestone Bakery is located behind their Victorian retail shop on South Washington. Inside are industrial mixers, dough dividers, ovens, mobile cooling racks, plastic bins brimming with rising dough and flour everywhere. On a broad hardwood bench, head baker Chris Harris shapes loaves and fills baking pans. He's been doing it for three years.

Harris relies on both machinery and his hands to mix and form the loaves. While much science is involved in getting the recipes, temperatures and times precise, there is a lot more to bread making than that.

"I take temperatures of doughs and water temps and all that," he says. "But there is an art to it. You can be all empirical, but you still have to have the feel. That's when your bread is really coming along, when you start trusting the feel. There's a certain look and feel to the dough when it's ready to go. The book will only take you so far."

Matt and Robin Doval started Cobblestone in 1991. Today, the bakery is cranking out fresh breads and pastries seven days a week (look for them at Huckleberry's, Rosauers, the Rocket Market, Eggers, Mizuna and the soon-to-reopen Davenport).

Matt holds a business degree from U.C. Berkeley, and Robin graduated from the San Francisco Culinary Academy, where she specialized in pastries and baking.

"So I get to be creative, and he keeps the numbers," she muses.

And Cobblestone's numbers are very good lately, particularly in the wake of Fugazzi Bakery's recent closure.

"I hate to say that I'm going to benefit from somebody else going under, but we are," says Doval. "But we've been around for a long time. And when you are -- like my husband and I -- not only the owners but the bakers, too, then you're always going to be able to keep that quality, that pureness to your business. Your clientele recognizes that. We also have a really good team. And Chris absolutely has a passion for bread baking."

"I just really like making bread," Harris says as he finishes mixing a new batch of Cobblestone's popular Indian bread. "It's a job that involves both the hands and the heart. There's passion, you're getting a workout, you're using your body. And you've got to think about what's going on. Bread does all that for me."

Harris has control over every aspect of the bread-making process, a responsibility he takes very seriously.

"The bread shift is a challenge," he says. "But that's another satisfying thing about it. I do everything. I mix, shape, bake and package. So it's not assembly line at all. My hands are really on it, I know what's going on. Bread is like a living thing, and so you have to nurture it. You have to pay attention. You have to be with the bread. You nurture the bread, and it's going to nurture you.

"And then," he adds rhapsodically, "when the oven's going and that smell is in the air, or when the rack gets full of all the different breads, it's really stunning. It makes you feel good."

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