There are few things that can drag me from my bed at four in the morning, especially in the middle of a Nor’easter. As I trudged up Concord Avenue in the dark, pummeled by rain, only the thought of Hi-Rise’s bread, straight from the oven, kept me going. I had arranged to observe the pre-dawn bread-making, and through the plate-glass windows the bakery’s light glowed like a beacon—the only sign of life on a dreary morning.
Most students know about Hi-Rise’s outpost on Brattle Street, in the yellow Blacksmith House, but the main shop, not more than a 15-minute walk from the Square and just a few minutes from the Quad, has been my little secret since my first year. Weekday treks to grab a loaf of crusty bread or a sandwich and weekends spent relaxing over brunch at the long communal table have been a routine part of my past few years. It’s my favorite place in Cambridge to grab a quick bite and my favorite bakery in the entire Boston metro area, but I have never come across anyone else resembling a Harvard undergraduate during my hours spent in the restaurant.
Rene Becker, the genius behind the operation, is a former food writer and restaurant critic for Boston Magazine, who began baking for the renowned Zingerman’s Deli to pay for his last two years of college. Bread became a full-blown passion. “It’s amazing what you can do with just four basic ingredients—flour, water, yeast and salt,” he says.
The breads are fabulous—crusty on the outside, with a crumb that manages to be both airy and chewy at the same time. Daily staples such as the sourdough Concord Loaf, whole wheat Huron Loaf, thin-crusted Semolina and New England Brown Bread, made with molasses and dried blueberries, are supplemented by rotating specialty breads such as Walnut Bread, Olive Bread and Challah.
When I arrived at 5 a.m. the bakery was in full swing. Dough that had been rising overnight was being scooped out of tubs and formed into baguettes and boules on a large table, new batches of dough were being kneaded in giant mixers and the enormous ovens were slowly heating. Snippets of Portuguese, Spanish and English flew through the room from the mouths of the international staff. I watched Fabrizio load the wall-size ovens using a quirky rolling contraption, then check and turn and recheck the breads until they were done, deftly wielding his peel (the paddle used to take bread in and out of an oven) like an extended arm. The ovens were heated to more than 200 degrees Celsius, and, as I dodged the racks of rising breads, I quickly began to sweat. Paolo called me over to smell the sourdough sponge (the mixture which gives the bread its flavor) that’s been growing for years. “Not very sour, though,” he said. “The people here in Cambridge don’t like it too strong.” A truck pulled to the door, and a parade of men tramped in and out for an hour, sacks of flour on their backs.
At Hi-Rise, baking is a highly scientific process—ingredients are calculated by percentages of the total product, everything is weighed on calibrated scales and recipes are adjusted seasonally for humidity. The recipes are simple—the secret is in the premium ingredients. The butter is Plugra, European-style with a high butterfat content and less moisture than standard supermarket fare, and flours come from Vermont and North Carolina. There are corn kernels in the Corn Bread, sprouted wheat berries in the Huron Loaf and plump golden raisins in the Raisin-Pecan Bread. And, as the bakers proudly tell me, everything is made by hand.
As the morning passed, the room became more and more crowded—cooks in the kitchen preparing soups, sandwiches and roast chickens; pastry chefs making luscious chocolate and lemon curd cakes, fruit tarts, scones and cookies; and, finally, the customers who had been lingering outside the door for a full 45 minutes before opening time. The windows were fogged with oven-fresh heat, and as soon as the customers stepped inside, the nasty weather seemed very far away.