While creating a perfect loaf of bread may become complicated, Chris Foley says finding his love for baking was easy.
When he was 14 years old, Foley, now the owner of Fiddle & Stone Bread Co., got a job at a bakery in Ashland and knew he had come across something special. “I had a knack for it right off the bat,” Foley says. “The owner said, ‘I am going to move you up from bagging to running the ovens.’ Then I started mixing the dough.”
Even though Foley didn’t bake any bread for a long time after leaving that job, his passion for baking remained. He spent a decade working at Shakespeare’s Pizza downtown, then helped open Pizza Tree in Columbia. “Pizza Tree was doing real sourdough crust at the time, so that sparked my passion for sourdough,” he recalls.
But the motivation truly came while Foley was working to get and stay sober. That’s when Foley fell back into his bread-making ways, creating loaves of bread for friends and family. “It started as something to occupy my time, so I was like, ‘I’ll figure out sourdough,’” he says. But it wasn’t long before Foley’s baking grew larger than his one-bedroom apartment could handle.“I was giving so much to my friends and family that they were like, ‘sell it, we don’t want any more,” he says.
Around that time, Foley got access to his first wood-fired oven thanks to Richard Knapp, who owns the oven and farm where Foley continues to bake.“We fired that oven all night; we fired it for about 13 hours,” he recalls. “We had no idea what we were doing; it was way too hot, way too long, and ruined all the bread.
But that was just the beginning.
Foley then started to adopt and adapt a recipe to work with his new style of wood-fired baking, which he brought into his business when he opened Fiddle & Stone Bread Co. in 2018.
And the name itself? Well, that’s a story of its own. Foley says his first thought when creating the name was to make sure there was an ampersand in it. “I wanted it to have an old-school feel,” he says. At first, the name didn’t have a deep meaning; he baked on stone and played the fiddle. But the name has come to mean so much more. “It’s the dance I have to do with both the oven and the microorganisms in the dough,” he says. “The dough and the bread part are more fluid like playing the fiddle, akin to dancing, where the stone is more the hard rules of baking.
Now, nearly five years later, Foley continues to learn more about baking in a wood-fired oven. “What I do is really challenging, but that is part of what I love most about it because it keeps it interesting,” he says. “Every bake is slightly different; I have no control over the temperature.”
He says the only way to master this type of baking is to do it, as the experience will make the difference. “It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot more error than success, and I still have days where I burn quite a bit of bread,” he says.
While it might feel impossible to master this form of baking, Foley says the key is not to give up. While recipes are good guidelines, Foley says nothing compares to experience. “It comes with time,” he says. “I have never heard of anyone producing a beautiful loaf of bread the first time they try.
While there are so many different variables to baking, Foley says one of the most essential tips from a professional baker is to scale or weigh your ingredients instead of measuring by volume. “Volume can change from one kind of flour to another or one kind of salt to another, and they can be completely different quantities,” he says, noting that the quality of ingredients can make or break a good loaf of bread. “Even the white flour I use is never bleached; it has as few added enrichers as possible. And the whole wheat I use is literal whole wheat.
Having healthier, fresher bread is just one of the benefits of shopping locally. Foley says it’s also important to keep money in the community and support local entrepreneurs. “A lot of people are turned off by a higher sticker price, but that money stays in the community, you are giving money to people who are your neighbors,” he says.
While Foley currently bakes for several local businesses, as well as selling bread at the Columbia Farmers Market and on his website, his ultimate goal is to open a brick-and-mortar bakery within five years. To learn more about Foley’s wood-fired baking, visit fiddleandstone.com.