This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
People aren’t queuing for Yeezys, noted René Redzepi as he walked past Copenhagen’s Hart Bageri, filming a queue that stretched hundreds of yards down the street. Kanye sneakers don’t get the good people of the Danish capital lining up in droves on a chilly Sunday morning. Sourdough bread does.
Copenhagen is caught up in an artisanal baking craze and the opening of Hart Bageri in leafy Frederiksberg is the icing on the hype cake. Richard Hart is the British chef and baker behind the eponymous bakery, which he has opened in partnership with Redzepi and Noma. Having worked as head baker at Tartine in San Francisco, fabled for their world-famous sourdough loaf, he has now converted an old sandwich shop into a three-storey bakery.
“Coming to Copenhagen, we didn’t have a clue, so we started touring the bakeries,” Hart says. “I wanted to open a local bakery so of course you have to learn about what everyone eats and wants here in Denmark.”
After leaving California, his initial plan was to open a bakery in London to see what magic he could conjure out of old British classics, such as iced fingers and Chelsea buns. But when he heard that Noma was looking to open a bakery, the Essex-born baker changed direction and moved to Denmark with his wife and four kids. He has spent the best part of a year now familiarising himself with local pastries and the Danes’ compulsive love affair with rye.
“I came here from America where everyone is obsessed about sourdough bread, but René [Redzepi] told me that I need to get the Danes by the ryebread. When you offer a Dane the choice between a white sourdough loaf and rye bread, 80 percent will chose rye. So now we have a new genre to work with.”
I meet at Hart Bageri four days before the opening and the biblical bread queues out in front. There is not a slice of rye in sight in the bakery. Not even a croissant crumb. Just unplugged mixers and a throng of builders and painters dashing to get the bakery finished in time.
I bring a selection of old-school Danish pastries to see what has inspired the menu at Hart Bageri. Aris Albinana, an American baker who has worked alongside Hart for almost a decade and has followed him all the way to Copenhagen, joins us for the tasting. They are curious about a marzipan-covered slice of bread known as a kaffestang (“we’ll do something similar,” says Hart, “but obviously a lot better”) and look with a mix of wonder and trepidation at a lime-green buttercream-laced cake shaped like a frog, which Albinana takes a bite of.
Tebirkes—a buttery Danish pastry packed with sugar and topped with poppy seeds—has already been adapted for the Hart Bageri selection.
“When they are at their best, tebirkes have this beautiful tail of crisp, caramelly stuff that comes out,” says Hart, “and I fucking love that.”
The pastry repertoire at Hart Bageri includes almond croissants and a cinnamon roll spiked with a slice of ham on top. There is a “salad bowl,” which is essentially a decadent vol-au-vent filled with creamy mushrooms and a mohawk of salad leaves on top. Hart admits the name might be slightly disingenuous: “It's not healthy at all, but it looks kind of healthy because it’s got the leaves in there.”
Before he was a baker, Hart was a chef working in fine-dining restaurants. One day, when he was walking around the bucolic Californian city of Petaluma, where his wife is from, he saw a building that sent his blood racing and altered his career path.
“There was this bakery, which looked more like a barn on a farm with sheep and chickens,” recalls Hart. “It didn't seem like a bakery, but when you got inside there were these two beautiful roaring woodfired ovens that just blew your mind. This was how people actually baked, like, 1,000 years ago? I was instantly so excited by the whole place, and the bakers were covered in tattoos and listened to rock and roll music. I came from a fine-dining world and I couldn't believe what I saw: Fucking hell, there is a bunch of pirates here making awesome bread.”
One of those pirates was Albinana, who lived across the road form the bakery and had made the move from front-of-house to the kitchen and found his calling in the bakery. From Petaluma, they both moved on to Tartine in San Francisco. Hart had begged the owner Chad Robertson to work there. He was willing to work for free. “Not that they needed any help,” says Hart, “but in the end I just hounded Chad every day until he was either going to kill me or give me a job. Eventually he gave me a job and didn’t kill me."
Why was that such an important place to as a baker?
“At Tartine, everything was made with senses and intuition. Other bakeries were governed by time schedules—when is it time to shape the dough, when is it time to rest it - but at Tartine the bread was in charge.”
Something happens when Hart and Albinana start talking about sourdough. It’s different to when the conversation is about pastries or rye. They get more animated. Their eyes grow big, the pupils dilate, and Hart’s right leg start tapping like an excited puppy.
“People who come and watch us bake are surprised because I don't measure the temperature and I don't know exactly how much water is in the dough,” he says. “I literally mix through intuition. It’s almost like a chef making a stock or a sauce where you don't keep exact measurements like you would do as a home cook. A real cook creates. And that's the same with our dough. It's not just a bunch of ingredients thrown together.”
The challenge then is to pass this Jedi-style approach on to his staff. You can’t learn it in six months, says Hart. It requires years of patience.
“Repetition is the best way to learn, because things change every day when you bake. The weather is different, the flour could come from a different field, there might be more moisture in the air. It teaches you to read everything by your senses. If I'm hot, my yeast is hot…”
Hart stops for a moment to contemplate that last sentence and how spacey it all sounds. Then he bursts out laughing and points at the green frog cake: “What the hell was in that thing? Acid?”
Albinana says that baking and working with sourdough is a humbling task, and while chefs might get off on the technical challenge of executing a high-flying tasting menu in the kitchen, nothing can rival the baker’s joy of seeing water, flour, and salt interact to reach the zenith.
"We try to make perfect bread every day of our lives,” says Hart. “Maybe four or five times a year we get perfect bread, and when you get it, you feel like you are a fucking legend.
How do you know when it's perfect?
“I'll just have to give you a loaf and then you'll know. I can't explain it.”
If you queue up in Frederiksberg, you might just strike gold.