A one-of-a-kind baguette arrived this week on the shelves of the Whole Foods store in Callowhill: a whole-grain loaf crafted by chef Marc Vetri and developed in Drexel University's new Bread Lab.
Made with wheat freshly milled by the Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, the loaves were baked in-store and went on sale for the first time since they were developed in the lab, a research center launched by Vetri and others last year to explore product development, nutrition, and ideas around community access to grains.
The Bread Lab was created as an East Coast branch of the Bread Lab at Washington State University, which is led by Stephen Jones, an heirloom-grain expert and visiting fellow at Drexel's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.
While Drexel doesn't have the expansive fields that Jones and his colleagues use to grow experimental grains, Vetri and school administrators see opportunities for community outreach in Drexel's urban location.
"We realized we could use the expertise from those in Washington state and apply it to product development," said Rosemary Trout, director of Drexel's culinary arts and food science program, "and, eventually, share it with the city."
Beyond making bread for shoppers in Whole Foods, the long-term goal is for the lab, which is part of the school's Food Lab, to connect with communities around Drexel and explore solutions to food-access challenges. Eventually, Trout hopes the local bread-making program will expand to other parts of the city.
The loaves are the first of what Trout and others hope will be a line of products developed by the Bread Lab in the coming years. In the past, Drexel's Food Lab students have partnered with local businesses like Shake Shack on developing a frozen custard flavor, and La Colombe, for which one recent graduate helped develop a draft latte. At Washington State University, the Bread Lab has taken on projects that include working with Chipotle on developing a healthier tortilla.
Vetri developed the Whole Foods bread recipe, which also comes in a shorter batard loaf, with Claire Kopp McWilliams, his head baker. McWilliams and Vetri have both taught classes at Drexel.
"We're working with students who will be the next generation of chefs," Kopp McWilliams said. "We want to introduce them to the idea of having higher standards and being careful with the flour they're using. That helps consumers down the line."
Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, one of the only stone mills remaining in the Philadelphia area, supplied flour for the project. The mill buys almost all of its grains fresh from the fields of Pennsylvania farmers, said Fran Fischer, who owns and operates the mill with her husband, Mark. Grains are milled to order on a stone mill and transformed into cornmeal, flour, or grits. Until now, Castle Valley has sold its flour primarily to distributors, which in turn supply restaurants and bakeries.
"What we're excited about is seeing bread made with our flour getting into people's homes," she said. "Just to see somebody be able to go to the grocery store and pick up a really good loaf of bread is wonderful. We like to see people eat well."
Kopp McWilliams and Vetri used the school's mill to test out recipes and used long-fermented dough in developing the Whole Foods loaf. In addition to being more nutritious, the whole grains add a rich, nutty taste to the bread, Trout said, as well as a flavor similar to that of sourdough.
"The crumb is really nice and chewy, like you want a baguette to be," she said. "It's not too sour, but it has a bit of a tang to it."
Customers are invited to a tasting for the bread from 10 to 11 a.m. Sunday, July 16, at the Callowhill Whole Foods. Kopp McWilliams and representatives of the Bread Lab will be on hand to discuss the loaf and to answer questions. The baguette costs $3, the batard $5.
"Normally, this is the kind of bread you'd have to go to a Vetri restaurant to taste," said Kavita Patel, who coordinates local partnerships for Whole Foods' Mid-Atlantic region. "It's exciting to be able to make it more accessible."
Kopp McWilliams has bigger ambitions for the future of the Bread Lab. She thinks about using the lab as a springboard for urban farming, possibly one day using vacant space in Philadelphia to harvest wheat, and creating a food center dedicated to grains. Other ideas include developing a simple, affordable loaf of bread that will be locally produced and marketed to a broader audience.