Saturday, May 7, 2005

Robert, the Kernel Baker

Yesterday morning I went to my favorite bakery on the planet**, THE KERNEL BAKERY, owned and operated by Robert Koerber since 1979 in Peterborough, New Hampshire (on Route 202, a mile or so south of the town center). This was the first time I'd been to the bakery in several months (I am too un-routine oriented to be a regular anymore). If you want the best croissant in the world--plain, chocolate or ham & cheese --or the best cheese danish, Eccles cakes and fig bars, this is the place.

Robert's croissants are made with layers of a whole wheat dough mixture (tempered with white flour) that alternate with layers of butter. The result is a not-too-flaky, but delicate melt-in-your mouth sensation. If you lightly warm your croissant in the oven (never in a microwave, good God!) and smear it with just the right amount of butter and jam, you will experience a confection never to be duplicated. He also makes different varieties of breads, cookies, cakes, eclairs (only from fall to early spring because of their most exquisite fresh egg custard) and a variety of bagels as diverse and good as his breads and rolls. And every day he does the same thing again--he works alone now and is only open three days a week, but he has always been the sole baker. Everything is done by hand--no trucks full of frozen dough like the kind delivered to a Panera or Au Bon Pain franchise arrive at his door for easy baking. Robert is a craftsman, a true artisan.

I was lucky to work for Robert off and on throughout college, graduate school and beyond for ten years from 1981-1991. Some of the best life lessons I've learned were at the Kernel Bakery:

1.) If you are working for someone and they want you to do it their way, you do it...with a smile on your face.
2.) If you can wash dishes or the floor as part of your job, you will always be a flexible person.
3.) Serving the public is excellent preparation for dealing with, well, the public.
4.) New England Coffee makes the best coffee.
5.) Really cute hulky contractor guys do eat whole wheat products.
6.) Some people in the world actually sound like Thurston Howell, III from GILLIGAN's ISLAND ("I mean, REALLY!")
7.) Almond macaroons and sesame bread can become a physical addiction in some people.
8.) Never use a calculator when a pencil will do.
9.) You can learn to make change without a computer telling you how to do it.
10.) An open window on a hot day in a hot bakery does not mean you will cool down.
11.) Word of mouth is the best advertisement.
12.) If you live within your means and pay as you go and bake a lot of bread, you can buy a nice sailboat.

Robert has always been a good friend. He came with his family from England (Forest Row where he went to Emerson College, founded in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner). He grew up in western Pennsylvania, and is descended from German immigrants. I think that is one reason we always hit it off: our shared Midwestern roots and our German heritage (my father's family was mainline Pennsylvania Dutch by way of Ohio; my mother's was solid hardcore English and New York, with a dash of Spanish thrown in). His three boys are all grown now and I remember them as babies or toddlers--my three children are also growing up as part of the bakery and have their own memories here, but the Koerber children actually grew up across the threshold in the attached house next door (surely it is every child's dream to grow up in a bakery).

If time, we generally chat about the world at large or banter with other customers. Yesterday I got a bag of danish pastries for the family (including "BaHas", our boys' name for "Bear Paws" since they started speaking) and eight lovely orange petit fours with pink roses on top. I figured we needed a bit of a sweet and something dainty after all of that homemade Mexican food at home last night with friends (along with a bowl of fresh fruit and MANY pitchers of homemade margaritas, we had an evening).

I am always amazed at the ability Robert has to rise in the dark, work in a quiet room except for occasional equipment noise, and create the same consistently great baked goods each time. At least he now gives himself alternate days off and weekends (mostly for sailing off Massachusetts' North Shore). His regular customers have adjusted to his diminished hours (Monday, Wednesday & Fridays, 7am-1pm) and he has cut back on a few things (like chocolate creme and all manner of donuts) but we can't hold it against him. Robert is one of the unsung gems of the Monadnock region. It will be a sad day for all of us when he turns off his oven and sails away into the sunset. But, as few realize, being a baker is just part of who he is.

**BABA a LOUIS in Chester, Vermont runs a close second but is just far enough away to not be a competitor.

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