I feel with every bite of bread I take that I know the baker. The experience becomes so personal when I have stood in line, anxiously hoping there will be a loaf left for me, for us, and then finally my turn comes. I chat briefly with the baker, while making my selections, not wanting to take too long for the sake of the others behind me in line.
She hands me my loaves slipped into paper bags, and as I walk away I smile at the other customers with satisfaction, knowing that we all will have the best bread in Cape May on our dinner table that evening. Only then do I realize that the loaves I am cradling are still warm.
Meet clay oven bread baker Elizabeth, a Cape May local, who has been selling her loaves along Sunset Boulevard for three Summers. We found her two Summers ago, and last year never made it out on the days she had her bread for sale.
Now, we discovered, she has a following. The line begins forming under the trees by her stand outside her family farm before she sets up at ten. Vegetables and flowers are also for sale, and she told me she planted raspberry bushes since we were there two years ago.
Most of what I know of her is from snippets of conversation and an article in the July 2012 Exit Zero (color) magazine featuring Elizabeth and two other local bread bakers. She learned to bake bread in Germany and has spent time in India. She had someone build her clay oven for her, and she begins baking on sale days at 4:00am.
There are questions I hope to ask her someday about her dough and combination of flours, but would not want to keep those behind me waiting longer than the 30 to 40 minutes they have already been there.
I am by no means bread deprived. Between years of baking my own, and the occasional purchased loaves from Metropolitan Bakery, Le Bus, Baker Street, and Rolings, I eat great bread. None of these artisan breads, however, have the flavor of Elizabeth's bread. The slight charring on the underside and tops of the loaves enhance the herbs and spices she uses with fairly heavy hand, and reciprocally, those strong flavors stand up to the bitterness from the baking method. This bread commands your meal be planned around it. It will not merely serve as support to your sliced tomatoes, cheeses or sandwich fixings. When we have a fresh loaf of Elizabeth's bread, I make dinner according to the flavoring of that bread. The meal's direction eminates from that center.
On this trip, we sampled four loaves (there is a fifth in the freezer). I claim the rosemary thyme and olive oil black pepper as my favorites, Mr. Savory chooses oatmeal molasses, and Olivia can't stop asking for more slices of the rosemary thyme when we have it.
Elizabeth's bread, even if sold at a bakery with employees selling on her behalf, would still be amazing, but the experience of acquiring it (anticipation, commraderie among your line-mates, the eye-popping shades of her farm flowers standing in pails of water, and waiting under the shade of trees) adds a dimension to the bread. On July 4th, (the line longer I than I have ever seen it), a man ahead of me began counting the number of people waiting, and figured that if everyone present bought a loaf, there wouldn't be enough for everyone. I told the group behind me that if there remained only two loaves when I reached the stand, I would only buy one, so they could try a loaf for the first time. According to the Exit Zero article, customers often will buy the last favorite loaf for another customer way back in line who would never have a chance otherwise.
The first day this season as I waited, I watched a young girl holding two loaves walk away with her mother and dog. They were stopped by a couple asking about the dog, and while her mother talked, the girl sniffed from loaf to loaf and back again, ignoring the discussion about English and American Labradors.
It made me smile observing how Elizabeth's bread reaches both children and adults alike, and I think that sweet scene may exemplify the highest praise.
You will find Elizabeth's stand at 609 Sunset Boulevard, on the right as you head towards Sunset Beach. Currently, she is there Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 10:00am. She is usually sold out by 11:00am.