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French bread, Framingham location

A former Sel de la Terre baker opens shop in the suburbs

FRAMINGHAM -- Finding B&R Artisan Bread is a little like looking for buried treasure. First you have to locate the nondescript shopping plaza on Route 30. The one with Taco Bell, a barbershop, and a convenience store. You have to know that the new bakery, with no prominent sign of its own, is in the storefront previously occupied by Zesto Bakery Kafe.

And even if you venture inside, you won't always be greeted by counter help. For a while, just after the bakery opened last month, sometimes a sign read simply: ''Please just call out for help. I am in back making bread."

The ''I" in this case is Michael Rhoads, best known locally for turning out brioche and baguettes as the bread maker at Boston's Sel de la Terre, where he worked until last year.

Long before that, he knew he wanted a spot of his own. About six months ago, Rhoads scrapped plans to open a bakery in Somerville and settled on a space about 20 miles to the west. As he sees it, the Framingham area, with its thriving retail scene and increasingly food-savvy population, is a natural place for the operation, which is modeled after the bake shops of Europe. Recalling visitsabroad, Rhoads says, ''Bakeries were small. The main piece of equipment is the oven, and everything else is done by hand."

B&R offers classic French breads and croissants, plus a range of American-style confections, including scones and muffins, all baked on-site. (When the bakery first opened, Rhoads rewarded customers who managed to find the place with free cookies.) The centerpiece is, naturally, the bread. On recent mornings, the shelves were stocked with pain levain ($8), a large, crusty, naturally leavened bread; light caraway rye rounds ($2.75), a European version of the New York classic; and buttery brioche baked in rectangular pans to make Pullman loaves ($6.50).

WHO BAKES THE BEST BREAD AROUND? Have you stumbled across a fabulous bakery that the rest of us should know about? Clue us in at www.boston.com/ae/food.

The store, which has no tables but a small counter for standing while you eat, serves coffee and juice. Rhoads hopes to expand the menu to include cheeses and meats, as well as sandwiches. But nothing too fussy or expensive, he explains. His favorite sandwiches are simple: half a baguette with butter and ham, for instance (a French cafe specialty).

Most of Rhoads's breads are made with three ingredients -- King Arthur flour, sea salt, and water -- and are baked in a massive Bongard oven, manufactured in France. Commercial yeast is added only to baguettes and the Italian ciabatta. Most begin with one of two carefully tended starters, either wheat or rye. ''It's just one style," Rhoads says, transferring fistfuls of starter into bins marked ''country," ''caraway," and ''wheat," preparing them for their pre-fermentation stage. ''It's the old way of doing things."

Rhoads, 31, like an increasing number of young bakers, prefers this hand method. ''Everything we do is about trying to coax as much positive flavor out of the grain as possible," he says.

Artisan baking has seen a resurgence over the past 30 years, says Gina Piccolino, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Bread Bakers Guild of America. Consumers are looking for something besides industrially made bread. Bakers who adopt the old way know their ingredients and their equipment, she says, and also how breads react in different environments. ''From our perspective, artisan baking is a craft," says Piccolino, who met Rhoads at the guild's national baking competitions.

Rhoads learned to make bread from Alan Scott, who also builds ovens. In an e-mail from his home in Tasmania, Australia, Scott writes about allowing bread time for natural leavening agents to do their work, emphasizing the importance of proper fermentation. ''Bread is not bread until the flours or grains are fermented," he writes. ''For example, you cannot call grape juice wine until it has been fermented. . . . The fermentation in a lot of foods does so much to boost the digestibility and availability of nutrients."

Bakers who gravitate toward a more traditional style of bread making often open their own small bakeries, says Scott, describing these places as ''quiet studios" where the process takes on an ''intuitive," rather than assembly line, approach.

Peter Merrill, who took over Rhoads's duties when he left Sel de la Terre, says the variables of baking loaves this way can be difficult to control, and the process isn't always uniform. ''The bread doesn't wait for you," says Merrill, who is now an apprentice on a New England farm. But he believes there is a clear demand for bread made naturally. ''The plus side to doing it the old-fashioned way is the flavor is so much better."

Mike Geldart, Sel de la Terre's current pastry chef, also learned from Rhoads. Geldart has done little to change the system Rhoads helped establish and says the two now have a ''friendly competition."

Rhoads, who worked briefly at the Boston restaurant Via Matta after leaving Sel de la Terre, says he wanted an escape from the stress of the restaurant world. Dividing up a cloud of baguette dough, which will make about 30 shaped loaves, he says that the new gig offers a much more consistent schedule, even though he is at work by 2:45 a.m. and often doesn't leave until evening.

In Framingham, he works alongside his wife, Jen Bones (the ''B" in ''B&R"), who handles the bakery's business operations. The couple has a 1-year-old son, Everett. ''Just to be in the same space is great," says Bones. The demands of the restaurant business didn't give them time together.

Rhoads, who so far has about 10 employees, sells his bread to several stores and restaurants around Boston. He hopes that his spot becomes a place for suburban dwellers to shop at regularly -- just as Europeans do. ''You go and get your bread every day," he says. ''You make it a stop along the way."

If he's in the back baking, just holler.

B&R Artisan Bread is at 151 Cochituate Ave., Framingham, 508-370-7730. Breads are available at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750 ; Lionette's Market, 577 Tremont St., Boston, 617-778-0360 ; and Salumeria Italiana, 151 Richmond St., Boston, 617-523-8743 .

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