It is the middle of night and you are dreaming of a steaming caffè latte and a delicious chocolate croissant for breakfast. Then you have visions of a luscious turkey, fontina, basil, focaccia panini sandwich for lunch. And for dinner, you can just taste on your spoon some ribolitta (Tuscan bean) soup or a stew with a crunchy hunk of ciabatta on the side to soak up the juices.
While you are having this blissful dream, a man named Denis Granarolo is rousing himself at 2:30 in the morning in Princeton Junction in order to get to work in Princeton. Is he an elf or a brownie, one of those magical helpers of fairy tales? No, he is a Frenchman who happily gave up a career in dentistry to open his first bakery in the village of Bastide Puylaurent-Lozere. Eventually he met Carlo and Raoul Momo through a mutual acquaintance and came with his wife and children to New Jersey in order to bring us delicacies rarely met with even in Paris. True magic can happen in a kitchen. Think of Remi and Linguini in the animated feature Ratatouille or think of Maurice Sendaks book In the Night Kitchen.
In this particular night kitchen, at a rectangular wooden island measuring about 6 feet wide by 12 feet long, bread and pastry dough are shaped and molded. Although a lot of industrial equipment backs up the laborious work, the sacks of flour still must be opened; the yeast needs to be measured so that it does its job precisely; the water must be added in just the right amount according to the time of year and the moisture in the air; the olives, sundried tomatoes, slivered almonds, or chocolate have to be added with care; the many other ingredients (nothing artificial ever, no extenders, emulsifiers, or preservatives) have to come into play at just the right moment. Two assistants work alongside the master baker, molding, glazing and scoring loaves, timing the rising with exactitude until they are ready to bake. More than 300 loaves of bread a day, not to mention pastries, come out of the stone hearth oven. There are baguettes of all kinds, ciabatta, boules, country loaves, challah, croissants, brioches, focaccia, cakes, tarts, bread puddings, and other specialties.
The Witherspoon Bread Company motto is Its not a meal without bread. The Momo brothers do not mean just any old bread, however. They mean handmade bread, artisanal bread, fresh-from-the-oven bread. The word artisanal is much abused in advertising these days, to the point that it is beginning to lose its meaning. Another way to think of the bread making process is to imagine the ingredients as clay, the baker as potter, the giant mixer as pottery wheel, the oven as kiln, and the ingredients as slip the glazing and scoring are rough equivalents in both. The bread you buy here is not manufactured, par-baked, pre-sliced, or otherwise adulterated. It is bread made the way it used to be and rarely is anymore; this is almost a lost art and it is indeed an art (as in the true meaning of artisanal) that requires years of practice, quick judgment, inspiration, creativity, and tactile skill.
At about dawn Granarolo and his assistants begin to clean up after their labors, although baking and preparation for the next nights routine continue until early afternoon. The day crew begins to arrive just before 6AM Christine Granarolo, Deniss wife and the manager, is obviously good at hiring and trains the courteous staff to greet customers in the friendliest possible way as they begin to trickle in for coffee and pastry. Heady aromas fill the air. In winter the windows are steamy and the warmth from the oven is welcoming. Standing in front of the baskets lining the wall to the right of the entrance and filled to the brim with temptations, it is hard for you to make up your mind the chocolate croissant you dreamed about? The Parisian brioche? The crunchy sugar-coated palmier? Even if you change your mind a few times, the staff is patient and seems to understand how difficult it is to make a choice. The pace picks up as the sun rises higher in the sky. In good weather at around noon the line of hungry people may be out the door and on to the sidewalk. Some sit on tables in the small outdoor patio or carry their food across the street to Hinds Plaza. Others come in to pick up special party orders or to get panini to carry back for an office lunch. By mid afternoon not much is left in those wicker baskets if it has been a good day. Finally, at 7PM on weekdays and slightly earlier on the weekends, the bakery closes and for a brief time the place is dark, empty, and quiet until the night crew returns and the whole cycle begins afresh yes, fresh.
The bakery supplies bread to Carter and Cavero on Palmer Square, to all the restaurants in the Terra Momo Group (Eno Terra, Mediterra, Teresa Caffe, and Dispensa at the Princeton Public Library) in addition to what it sells to customers in the tiny space reserved for this purpose. Given the sheer number of loaves and pastries made on the premises, it must be another kind of magic that rules the square footage of what used to be Totos butcher shop. Regulations of many kinds restrict what can and cannot be done at this nineteenth-century historic building. In addition, for some obscure reason baking is classified as manufacturing in New Jersey; that is, the art of making bread and pastries by hand is considered to be factory work perhaps because the way most bread is made is like mechanical assembly-line production. In any case, Carlo and Raoul Momo, ever intent on doing things better and watching over their business in order to protect it, have thought creatively about how to expand without compromising quality. If they can find a nearby site better suited to baking more bread while using the same methods, they may relocate that part of the business. Their hope is to expand output and to supply other local markets and restaurants with the artisanal loaves they serve in their own establishments. Then the Witherspoon location would become more of an eatery and only the pastries would be baked there. Let the wider magic begin!
The Witherspoon Bread Co. is located at 74 Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton. It is open weekdays from 6AM-6:30PM, on Saturday from 6AM-6:00PM, and on Sunday from 6AM-4:00PM. The phone number is 609-688-0188. The website at www.terramomo.com offers an overview of the entire group, a wealth of information about bread, a long and interesting story about the Momos and the bakery by a Princeton University student, Jennifer Chang, and much more information.