Grape Expectations from Orwasher’s

EM3-LowRes4At a time when small bakers all over the country are considering their flour’s carbon footprint, Keith Cohen, formerly of Tribeca Oven, is upping the locavore ante. The new owner of Orwasher’s bakery on the Upper East Side recently gathered clusters of chardonnay grapes from Bridgehampton winery Channing Daughters to infuse a starter for a new line of breads.

Cohen (pictured at near right) hopes this place-based chemistry project will help update the venerable institution of rye, pumpernickel, challah and sandwich rolls once named among the nation’s top 10 bakeries. “There aren’t just Eastern European immigrants coming to Orwasher’s,” he says. “Our customers are well-traveled and have different tastes than they used to.”

Founded in 1916 by Abraham Orwasher in the thriving immigrant enclave of Yorkville, the bakery had a history of innovation. According to legend, the founder’s son, Louis, invented raisin pumpernickel bread during World War II, and took pride in using the same brick ovens and sourdough starter that his father used decades before. (Cohen inherited and uses one of the ovens.)

But Cohen’s “wine bread”—a pain de campagne or country loaf made with rye, whole wheat and white flour—has deeper roots. Bakers in ancient winemaking cultures like Rome and North Africa used the ample yeast on grape skins to make dough rise.

Cohen wrapped the destemmed grapes in a cheesecloth, squeezed them gently and then put the sweet, yeasty sack in a bowl with flour and water. “Before long, it becomes alive,” says Cohen. “You’ve got to watch and feed it, like a newborn.” In fact, Cohen found this Bridgehampton grape starter to be more vigorous and demand less feeding than the starter “created at the bakery out of New York city air.” “It smells like a winery,” he says. And the loaves are showing up in baskets at Gourmet Garage and other Gotham foodie haunts. The chef at the Sheridan Manhattan Hotel tore a loaf in half and sniffed, remarking “it’s so complex, it’s like wine.”

Channing Daughters winemaker Christopher Tracy (pictured at far right), a former pastry chef whose viticultural riff on geographical flavor includes blends of randomly planted varietals, agrees that the bread has “hints of vitis,” and he wonders how it will compare with the bread Cohen is now making from a red-grape starter.

True to the medium, Cohen plans to recreate new starters with each new vintage. He’d like to get local wheat, too, but the state’s grain production is tiny compared to its grape yield. “Maybe New York could grow some ryes,” he says. And Orwasher’s shouldn’t have any problem using that.

Photo credit: Lindsay Morris