Christian Walter Comes Home to Bake Bread at Grey Barn

Chef/owner, the Art Cliff Diner, Vineyard Haven

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Sourdough boule. —Gabrielle Mannino

Despite an unanticipated late opening on July 22, the not-so-new new bakery at the Grey Barn and Farm in Chilmark produced more than 2,000 loaves of artisanal bread by September 1 and had gone through 3,500 pounds of flour in the month and a half it had been open.

“It was very, very busy, ” 32-year-old baker Christian Walter said. “I was working every day this summer. I’m definitely glad it’s September, as I think all Islanders are.”

Lines formed at times this summer, especially around 10 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when Walter walked warm, flaky croissants from the bakery across the courtyard lawn to the farmstand. Those sold out quickly. As a neighbor myself, within walking distance from the farm, I knew I had to get there exactly at 10, and not 10:30 as I did one day, only to miss the croissants completely. 

Walter said he even had a group of people knocking on his bakery window one day this summer at 5 a.m. They had been biking on the road and drawn in because “it smelled so good.”

Farm owner Eric Glasgow says the bakery is a “great addition” to their market store, which has gradually expanded over the 10 years since opening and carries organic milk, cheese, meat, farm vegetables, herbs, salad greens, and an assortment of local pottery and art. The bakery rotated up to 15 different types of breads, including his signature sourdoughs. On occasion, there were also English muffins, brioche rolls, and challah. With fall arriving, Walter says he will have time to experiment and expand offerings to include heartier breads suited for colder weather.

This fall, the farm bakery started offering a CSB — a Community Supported Bread program. Like a CSA for farm produce, participants pay up front for bread for 12 weeks and will pick up 2 freshly baked loaves each Monday from September 20 through December 16. Croissants will continue this fall (Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10) 

Walter gets especially excited about the naturally fermented sourdough: bread with a crispy outer crust and a tasty, creamy center crumb from freshly milled flour with the flavors and nutrients intact. He follows a “stretch and fold” technique pioneered by a couple of prominent bakeries in the U.S., including the famed Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Giving the bread a series of foldovers over a longer course of rising (18- 24 hours) creates a large, open crumb structure and allows maximum hydration. “When you do finally bake,” says Walter, “you end up with a much more moist interior without having to use commercial dough softeners or enriching your dough.”

Everything at the farm is certified organic, Walter says. “All the eggs, milk, vegetables, cheese, and herbs used in the breads are all from the farm.”

Walters says he views this type of baking as more of a return to the way bread was baked around the world until just 50 or 60 years ago when it changed with the advent of mass production and processed food. “Bread has always been artisan,” he points out.

We’ve gone through efforts to find better local food, Walter explains, and now people have been asking, why not bread.  “We’re seeing the outcome of that. People are more interested in eating well-produced, locally produced baked goods that are made with whole ingredients that are delicious.”

Interest in baking is on the rise, too, he says. “You see a lot of young people gravitating toward it. You see a lot of people who care and who are willing to support it.” 

Walter’s own story started with farming, not baking, right out of high school at Morning Glory Farm. He eventually teamed up with his sister, Lily Walter, who started Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick. He was looking for a way to make farming sustainable year-round, and cycled through a variety of winter jobs, including carpentry which he didn’t particularly enjoy.

When Slip Away built an outdoor pizza oven, they started making 80 to 100 pizza pies on a weekly pizza night open to the public. Walter also began experimenting, baking galettes, tarts, and some quiches in the outdoor oven. “I was trying to bake bread in it, but what I learned later is that a pizza oven is not a good bread oven.” His direction was crystallizing , and he wanted to learn more. 

Walter applied to work at a restaurant called Rhubarb in Asheville, N.C., a geographical area that appealed to him, starting in pastry. He planned on staying only a few months. But after five months, the bread baker left and Walter stepped up. After a year, “they promoted me and I took over the bread side — making sourdough bread mainly, including levains and ciabattas. He ended up staying for three years, the last two as head baker, overseeing the addition of a sister bakery, called Rhu. Walter grew right along with the restaurant and bakery, baking hundreds of loaves each week with 16 to 18 staffers.

“My plan was always to come back home,” says Walter, the son of Jan Pogue, former publisher of Vineyard Stories, and the late John Walter, former editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette and one of the founding editors of USA Today. “I’d envisioned coming back and baking somewhere in the wintertime and farming in the summertime. I had good relationships at Rhubarb, and I liked the area, but it never felt like home.” 

Back on the Island, he started searching for kitchen space for a bakery, including locations in the Airport district area. A close friend, Ethan Buchanan-Valenti, asked the Grey Barn owners, Molly and Eric Glasgow, where he was working, if they had any interest in starting a bakery. They did, and after being introduced to Walter, started talking with him in the spring of 2018.

Before building their own bakery from scratch, Walter took a road trip with Molly and Eric and visited a number of New England bakeries. Some of their favorites included Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline and Seven Stars in Providence.

They located their own bakery in the main barn at the farm, former home to the Campbell & Douglas equestrian shop some 10 years ago, before the Glasgows got the cheese and dairy up and running. The new bakery, alongside a new commercial farm kitchen, features a Tagliavini oven from an Italian company in Parma, Italy — now well worn in after a summer of use. There’s also two commercial dough mixers, and a large work table with plenty of underneath storage.  

Having enough storage space, Walter explains, was one of his priorities. The bakery needs to source organic ingredients to be on hand when needed. Two prime sources for grains include King Arthur Flour from Vermont and Maine Grains, both organic and milled to order for Walter’s needs. 

Small touches in the bakery, like a temperature gauge that dispenses water at exactly the temperature needed, come with the benefits of building a new bakery. A piece of equipment called a sheeter for croissants, like a giant pasta roller, allows croissants to be folded and refolded without changing the temperature of the buttery dough, creating a better product. 

On my most recent visit to the bakery, no one answered my knock, so I ventured around the corner and found Walter with earbuds in, wiping a few tears from his eyes. As I went to get a hairnet, I wondered if he had just received some bad news and it wasn’t a good time for an interview, or whether the summer had simply worn him down. 

When I returned, I saw the actual reason: three extra-large sheet pans of onions he had just sliced, about to go into the oven for the rye bread with caramelized onions. As the onions baked, he carefully weighed the other ingredients into the sourdough base, including maple syrup, which balances the slight bitterness of the rye flour, and a cooked porridge of cracked rye berries. “It’s probably the most labor-intensive bread I do. It’s also one of my favorite breads,” he says.

As he was preparing the dough, Walter was contemplating two new breads he wanted to try, now that he had a breather after the intense summer opening. He was either going to bake a brioche with the farm’s RipRap cheese or a rye brioche with their Bluebird blue cheese. I noticed the next day, as I passed the blackboard on South Road where the farm is located, it read: Bluebird Brioche.

The rye mix he was working on was hand-kneaded and then stored in the walk-in refrigerator for its overnight fermentation. It would appear in the baking rotation for the next morning, which started at 4 am.

He would then bake, and begin the process all over again.

Along with the new bakery at Grey Barn and Farm, Olivia Pattison of Cinnamon Starship and Kate Warner of the Vineyard Bread Project also bake artisan breads people swear by and seek out each week.