When I was a little girl, my mother and I would go to Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, CT for our produce. This was before there were farmers markets in most towns every week- and I took for granted that we didn’t need to go far to get fresh local food. In addition to the apples and strawberries and maple sugar candy, there was another item we purchased at Bishop’s: Judies French Peasant Bread.
If you have never lived in or visited Connecticut, you won’t know this extraordinary artisan bread. A hard and salty crust, baked until perfectly brown. A sweet, spongy interior. A loaf is only fresh for 8-12 hours, so it can’t be shipped. You must come to the bread.
In the 70′s and 80′s, it was a hot commodity, and sold out quickly. The possibility of not finding any made its ultimate consumption even more satisfying. We would enter the store anticipating the sight of the wicker basket that sat toward the back. We would expectantly approach, hoping to find it full. If we were lucky, we found a loaf. The temptation to eat the bread during the car ride home was not worth fighting. We would tear off pieces and eat it- leaving crumbs on the seats and a paltry loaf by the time we got home. Thirty years later, the bread tastes the same and fortunately is easier to find.
I had a lovely lunch with David Brooks, the owner of Judies Bakery for the past thirteen years. When he first lived in New Haven, CIA-trained Brooks walked into DeRose’s Market on Orange Street and, surrounded by delicious smells of warm breads and fresh basil, tried his first taste of the famed peasant bread. Like anyone who tries it, he was smitten, and recognized how unusual it was. When the opportunity presented itself, he bought Judies Bakery from its founder Judith Saleeby. He spent eight years at the bakery’s original location on Shore Road in Branford, ultimately moving it to its current home on Grove Street in New Haven five years ago.
Brooks added sweet confections to the menu, as well as many more tasty baked breads and a lunch menu. Executive Chef James Anderson has a daily array of lunch specials. I ate a delicious salad. I watched enticing croissants being rolled with care. Their brioche makes a wonderful french toast. But is it wrong to have a favorite?
The ingredients printed on the label seem simple enough: unbleached flour, butter, yeast, kosher salt. Brooks even shared the recipe in the New Haven Register recently. However, the magic in the baking process, and I would never attempt to recreate this process, which takes almost four hours and involves steam-injected ovens (the same ones Judie used on Shore Road).
I asked Judie Saleeby about her nascent baking inspirations. How she ever came to create such an unusual and delectable bread. This is what she told me:
“between the ages of 3-4, the insatiable gallery of backyard mud pies and seeing the difference between sun-dried to oven baked is what did it …”
Inspired beginnings. And the rest of the creation process will remain a mystery, as I think it should.
Buying food is different than it was thirty years ago. It is easier to find artisan breads and specialty bakeries. Every week at my local farmers market I see a table where (delicious) Wave Hill Breads are sold. Even Costco sells a French baguette it calls “artisan.” But despite all of these options, I still prefer Judies French Peasant Bread above all others. Not out of nostalgia- although that makes it sweeter. But because this bread is incomparable, exceptional and perfect. If you haven’t tried it, you must.