Julia Blaine always walked by the same bakery on her way home from work in Barcelona. The streets were shadowed by black skies, but the shop glowed with bakers flickering like fireflies as they prepared the bread she would buy the next day.
Julia, who moved to Spain after graduating college, worked as a bartender, and several of her regulars were those midnight bakers at Baluard, the French bakery. As they drank at the bar, she'd repeatedly ask them for a job. But she wasn't eligible—because she didn't speak French.
"Even though we were in Spain," she laughs.
Eventually, another French baker did hire her: Lionel Vatinet at La Farm Bakery in Cary.
Julia and her husband now own Strong Arm Baking, one of many successful home bakeries in the Triangle. After three years abroad, Julia moved back to the States in 2009—the same time as Thomas Blaine returned from his tour in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines. The two met long before as teenagers, but were just friends.
"To be fair," Julia says of Thomas, now her husband, "I was in love with him."
When they finally reunited in their home state, they began to build a life together. Julia worked at La Farm for a year and a half before moving to Scratch in Durham, where she crimped crostatas, baked bread, and ultimately started wondering, What next?
Then Thomas built her an oven.
After reading The Bread Builders by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, he drafted a few construction plans—and a lot of family and friends—to create the mammoth wood-fired oven behind their ranch house in rural Granville. From their kitchen window, you can peer into its domed, cavernous mouth, as their cat, CC (short for Crazy Cat), struts along the brick ledge.
It didn't take long for the oven to ignite Strong Arm Baking, which soon became Julia's full-time job and, eventually, Thomas's. They work fifteen-hour days together, making "whatever we want." Hand-rolled croissants, stuffed with wedges of tortilla Española. Crackly ginger-molasses cookies. Cinnamon-sprinkled doughnut twists. Crusty loaves of sprouted-grain sourdough—all while tending to their two-month-old, Jack..
These are sent to the Wake Forest and Eno River farmers markets, to a local bread share, and to various restaurants. Sometimes they stay right where they are, waiting for a neighbor to pick up an order from the porch and leave a log of homemade sausage in its place. This intimacy, this blur between business and pleasure, is what the Blaines cherish.
As they continue to expand, the same question that sparked the oven swirls around like smoke: What next? This fall, they bought a storefront—a historic space in Oxford, where they can grow bigger in a small town.
It is pitch black in Pittsboro, North Carolina, long past sunset on a Monday night. Rob Segovia-Welsh is outside his house, filling a wheelbarrow with wood to feed the oven. He fired it hours ago and it's beginning to get hungry. Amid his stacking, he pauses to look at the sky. Out here, it is so empty, so clear, that if he looks long enough, he can see every nook and cranny of the moon.
But there's bread waiting. The family home is also the family business—Chicken Bridge Bakery. As with Strong Arm, the separation here between work and life is as thin and intangible as flour clapped between two palms into a cloud.
As Rob mixes caramel-colored roasted garlic cloves into bread dough, the ceiling stirs, then shudders with the sound of a stampede. Rob and his wife, Monica—the other half of Chicken Bridge—have two sons: Simon, thirteen, and Milo, four. As the younger one sprints and squeals and laughs upstairs, Rob can't help but laugh, too.
In 2014, the Segovia-Welshes launched an online campaign to fund updates to the bakery—notably, a new oven. They raised over $14,000, which went toward the model burning outside right now, crackling and popping like a bowl of cereal. Still, it doesn't take long to see that the real hearth, the real center of Chicken Bridge isn't the oven at all. It's the kids.
"My dad went to a factory and then he came home," Rob says. "But I never knew what he did, you know?"
Simon and Milo don't just know. They help—from stacking wood to cleaning proofing baskets to benching dough.
In its eleventh year, Chicken Bridge epitomizes what is exciting about baking right now in North Carolina: grains grown and milled locally; dark, sultry crusts, decorated with hand-cut stencils; and a rekindled closeness between producers and consumers. As Rob puts it: "What's exciting about being a small bakery is being that role of a village baker."
The fire is pretty exciting, too. He makes his way outside to check on its progress.
"It's all alive," he says. "You're taking this wood that stood in the forest for hundreds of years, collecting energy from the sun. You're releasing that energy into the oven. And that is going to raise the bread. And that bread is going to become a person's energy."
He pauses as the flames lick the bricks inside the oven, turning them from black like the sky to white like the moon. By now, the kids are asleep, and Monica is downstairs, weighing dough and shaping it into rounds. He heads inside. When the door shuts, it's completely silent, except if you get close enough to the oven, you can almost hear it breathe.