All photos copyright Ilana Panich-Linsman, 2013 (www.ilanapl.com); map by William Linsman, who doesn’t care if you use it. N.B. In the interest of journalistic ethics, I must disclose these photos were taken prior to my visit.
Here are three of the important geographical points in Neftali Duran’s life, a scalene triangle (unequal sides; I had to look it up):
He was born in the Mexican State of Oaxaca, moved to Los Angeles, became a chef, and then . . . came to the Connecticut River Valley. In 2005, he bought El Jardin Bakery (www.eljardinbakery.com), and moved it, in 2008, into a building in South Deerfield, Mass., after building a wood-fired brick oven. Ilana Panich-Linsman and I visited the bakery, and watched him in action in mid-May,
These days, or rather nights, Nef bakes about 250 loaves of bread six times a week. He has Saturday nights off. He usually starts in the late afternoon or early evening, and takes the last loaves out of the oven around 2:00 in the morning. Then he tries to get some sleep. But here he is, in action:
Nef supplies bread for the wholesale trade — restaurants and food shops — but also sells his bread at farmers’ markets and through the small cafe in his bakery, open a few days a week. “Sometimes people complain that our loaves aren’t exactly the same,” he says. But it’s not a factory here in South Deerfield. It’s Nef working mostly alone, but sometimes with a helper. “People forget about how craft works,” he says. “Craft has variations. If I give someone all my recipes, he still has to learn the craft.”
“I don’t mind sharing recipes,” he says. “I take a broad view. I didn’t invent anything; I’m just following a tradition thousands of years old.”
We had brought Nef and his helper Corinne Fay some Moroccan take-out, from the Amanouz Cafe in Northampton. It was close to 10:00 p.m. They were hungry. Nef pauses and says, shrugging:
“Fire, heat, flour. That’s it.”
“You have to dance in a small kitchen,” says Nef. “This business requires fluid movement. It’s so specific.”
He bakes organic sourdough bread, naturally leavened, made from sourdough starter. (Though he uses yeast for challa.) He’s known for his French batards, country bread, rosemary and olive oil loaves, and multigrain bread. (I spied some of the previous night’s scones, for sale in the cafe.)
Loaves from the oven. We couldn’t stay, alas.