Last Monday morning, Sarah Wood paused at the center table in the small Otter Creek Bakery kitchen to chew thoughtfully on a piece of whole wheat baguette.
"Want to try this baguette?" she asked, offering pieces around the kitchen.
"Is it sourdough?" asked Cindy, one of the bakers.
"No, just plain Gleason's Grains whole wheat flour. It's wheat-y," said Sarah.
Sarah Wood readies a pan of rolls for the oven.
"I don't know what I want," she added, taking another bite and shaking her head. "Maybe a little thinner. Maybe it's too fat. Or maybe add a little sugar in there, or honey. But then it's going to get darker, so we'll have to bake it longer because of the sugar."
"No, don't make them thinner," said Cindy.
"This is how we make recipes," said Wood. "We hash it out, figure out what we're going to do, then make it. Then we give it to the customers and see what they think. It's really social."
The last loaves of the morning were coming out of the oven, and Sarah was using the downtime to work on some new bread recipes.
"We're always thinking of new things," she said. "We've got to keep it fresh and interesting, because that keeps us interested too. Otherwise we'd get bored."
But there was nothing boring about the pace of the bakery that morning. Most of the bread was done — in one motion, Wood pulled the last pan of loaves out of the steam box where they'd been rising, slid them into one oven, then pulled a pan of crusty, golden brown baguettes out of the other with her bare hands. The timer on the wall went almost unused, but everything seemed to come out right on time.
"It's kind of like riding a bike," she said about keeping track of timing in the kitchen. "After so many years, you don't even think about it."
In 1984, after years of traveling, working restaurant jobs all over the country — in Miami, Boston, San Francisco — Sarah and her husband Ben opened their own place in Middlebury. They had been coming up to work in Vermont during winters off from restaurants in Nantucket, and they that's where they started looking. Upon encountering the competition and prices of the Burlington restaurant market, they turned their sights to Middlebury.
The tray of sourdough loaves is ready to come out.
The Mill Creek Kitchen, on Mill Street below the waterfalls, had just closed, so that's where the Woods opened the Otter Creek Café and Bakery. In 1989 they moved up to their current building at the intersection of Main Street and College Street.
In the bakery, Sarah used the bread recipes she had developed in her years working as a pastry chef. And even though Otter Creek's offerings have changed and evolved over the years, some things — like the bakery's classic whole wheat loaf — have never changed.
"We've been making it since day one. People expect it," said Sarah.
As the sky lightened on that rainy morning, Sarah cleared off the center table and moved on to the cake station in the corner — it was the day before Mardi Gras, so she had king cakes to decorate. The loaves were stowed away neatly, ready to be sold or made into sandwiches, and the place was ready for its transition from baking to cooking. In a few hours, the bakery would begin churning out soups and sandwiches for the lunch crowd.
The same transition happens day in and day out — the bakery is open seven days a week. But with the right mentality, that repetition isn't such a big deal.
"We come to play," said Sarah. "We love what we do, and we sample everything."
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.