Our Visit to Crust Bakery - Fenton, MI

Argus Farm Stop recently sent two carloads of employees to visit one of our local producers.

It's a question we hear all the time at the Farm Stop: “Where do your bread and pastries come from?”

Well, the majority come from Crust Bakery, a world-class bakery in the sleepy town of Fenton, MI. They produce a variety of artisan breads and pastries – and they do mean artisan! The owners have traveled to Montreal, Toronto, and the French Culinary Institute in New York in order to find the best bakery practices, and this effort is evident in the quality, consistency, and overall deliciousness of the final product. Every customer has a favorite, from the seed-sprinkled Saskatoon Prairie Bread to the too-big-for-the-bag Pain au Raisin.

We started with a tour of the bakery itself: a sunny, warm building filled with good smells. Large windows stretch the length of one side so that passersby can observe the baking process, demonstrating a visibility important to Crust's mission. Mark Hamel, one of the owners, explained that Crust Bakery started as part of The Laundry, a local restaurant which has been in business for nearly two decades. Part of the original goal for Crust was to supply the restaurant with high-quality products, although of course Crust now does booming business as a supplier for many local stores and restaurants.

At Crust baking bread is a two-day process, as intricate as a science experiment. Getting from an order to a loaf takes time, although once the bread is done with its long rising (which develops the distinctive flavor) there is only a brief window for getting it into the oven. To make this happen, bakers are present in shifts for almost 24 hours a day. Baking happens in an enormous oven that arrived on special order from Verona, along with an engineer to assemble it! We began to understand all the skill and labor that goes into Crust products as we moved through the rooms, watching bakers roll out baguettes and pastry chefs pour melted chocolate into baking tins.

We continued the training a few blocks over, sitting at long tables with empty plates and dishes of butter in front of us. While we looked eagerly at the piled-high bread and pastries at the front, the owner explained the Crust mission, which emphasizes traditional practices and product quality. The cost of each loaf and pastry reflects not the number of ingredients, as list is usually short. There is just flour, salt, and water in most of the bread (plus some yeast, seeds, cheese, etc., depending on the style). Rather, the price comes from the high quality of the ingredients, and especially from the labor involved in following artisan, old-world methods.

Mark explained that the process of baking bread dates back 11,000 years, and that after the discovery of yeast not much has changed in bread making, until the more recent “Wonderbread,” pre-sliced and packaged bread that came with mass production. “The best thing since sliced bread” may be a common saying in our culture, but because Crust bread is preservative-free, with the texture and slight imperfections of a real, traditional loaf, it is best sliced as-needed, and stored not in the fridge or a plastic bag, but in a paper bag or on the counter.

Mark lamented that the public is used to cheap grocery store products, but he hoped that those who are financially able might come to value quality over quantity. In fact, he passed around some store-bought croissants and pastries, to compare to Crust's traditional versions. The difference was striking. The grocery croissants were just rolls with a fake-butter taste, and the pastry was a crumbly, overly-sweet concoction with no real fruit. Meanwhile, Crust is one of the few bakeries that makes an all-butter croissant, as they take the time to spread butter out on each thin sheet of dough. If you've never tasted a real croissant, it might be time!

As a reflection of the thought and care that goes into each loaf of bread, many of Crust's unique names reflect the deeper history behind each style of loaf. For instance, the name for the Italian-style Hammonton Round comes from the town of Hammonton, NJ, where many families of Sicilian heritage settled. The French-style Henry Street bread comes from a real street in Quebec where one of the owners has lived, reflecting his French heritage. And the name for “104 Sourdough” comes from Crust's street address, as sourdough flavor always differs depending on the surrounding air composition.

The training class included many free samples, and after so many pieces of bread, danishes, and pie, we left the class feeling like we could run a marathon (and, later, take a nap)! But we also left knowing the best practices for everything from displaying to storing bread. A few tips for customers:

– Never refrigerate Crust bread. (The reason everyone refrigerates grocery-store loaves is because we have come to expect some mold growth. This mold arises from the excess yeast used to speed the baking process, which also results in lost flavor, then additives to add flavor back in. Real bread flavor arises only from giving the dough time to develop, as they do at Crust!)
– If you need to, you can freeze bread to store it, then “re-bake” to get it as good as new!
– If you want to know more about a particular bread – its flavor or best uses – just ask us!
– As delicious as it is, don't try to eat a whole loaf of Crust bread in one sitting. You just can't!

Wondering what we sell? Want to try something new? Our many usual bread and pastry offerings include:

City White – Classic white bread, sometimes available sliced.
Downtown Brown – With whole wheat and some rye, a classic brown bread.
Hammonton Round – Italian-style, with toasted sesame seeds throughout.
104 Sourdough – A big loaf, with flavor unique to the area.
Village Round – Simple Italian bread, great with garlic or olive oil.
Prairie Seed Saskatoon – Dense and delicious, with rye, oat, and wheat bread, with flax, pumpkin,sunflower, and sesame seeds.
Henry Street Provincial – French farm style, slightly sour with thick crust.
Tri-County Pepper – Asiago, cheddar and Gruyere cheese, with strong peppery flavor.
Cinnamon Raisin – A hearty loaf sweetened with a little honey and dark raisins.
Challah – Jewish egg bread, great for French toast.
Baguette – French bread with the classic thick crust and chewy interior.
Focaccia – Pesto or Parmesan rounds with sliced tomato.
Butter Croissant – All-butter, flaky, flavorful; you've never tried a croissant like this!
Almond Croissant – Butter croissant with sweet almond filling and powdered sugar.
Chocolate Croissant – Butter croissant sweetened with baker's chocolate.
Pain au Raisin – Flaky raisin roll, sweetened with apricot.
Pecan Roll – Rich roll with brown sugar and pecan topping.
Cinnamon Rolls – Sweet and gooey, the cinnamon roll done right.
Ginger Molasses Cookie – A flavorful, chewy customer favorite.
Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookie – Just the right balance of sweet and salty.
Peanut Butter Cookie – A classic, wholesome cookie.
Cherry Scone – A denser, sweeter scone than you're expecting! Cherries throughout.
Lemon Scone – A bright scone sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Apricot Gorgonzola Bacon – Try this unique scone!
Brioche Donut – A glazed, fluffy donut.

-- Post by Rose Miller
Sources include: Crust Bakery website, handbook, and training visit