The benefits of a traditional method
Apafi Bakery in Prejmer, Romania
Photo : The reporter (on left) with Mr. Apafi, the traditional baker
The baker was a large, noticeably tough man, seemingly hardened by the years of early mornings, physical labor and close proximity with the fiery brick oven that the bakery demanded of him. His voice was big and his gestures were even bigger as he bellowed at the other two of us in Romanian, and a wry smile crept across his face at various points in the conversation, indicating to me that he felt a strong sense of pride in his work.
His ramblings were mostly aimed at Alexandra, the stylish, quick-thinking Romanian woman who served as my guide and translator. She acted undaunted by the baker’s boorish-but-kind mannerisms, eventually revealing an impressive knack for remembering his long Romanian tangents and relaying them to me in English.
Last was me. As I gnawed on the bread sample the baker had handed me on my way in, I enjoyed the sights and smells, and took note of the confined space, vaguely imagining what it would be like to work there myself.
Having grown up with the majority of my sandwiches slapped between two pieces of store-bought American bread, sampling the fresh products of the bakery was a deliciously unique and foreign experience. As the conversation progressed, I began to learn why: the bakery is operated under the traditional Transylvanian baking method, which completely avoids the additives and accelerated fermentation process that can define many commercial bakeries.
Mr Apafi uses potatoes in his bread, making him the only one of three traditional bakeries in Brasov County who does so. Potatoes enhance the flavor of his bread -- a claim that I can vouch for -- and keep it moist. His process is a simple one, but yields a product that rivals any of the best bread I can remember having: He starts at 5 a.m. by making a paste called “maya,” which is a mixture of water, salt and natural fermentation chemicals. It is left to ferment for about 90 minutes, then kneaded for 15 to 20 minutes -- this is where the potatoes come in. After sitting out for 30 minutes, it is kneaded again for 15 minutes, then finally left to sit for another 15. Once the kneading is complete, the bread is weighed and its size and shape are determined. After spending some time sitting in a long, rectangular wooden box the baker showed me, the bread is placed in the oven for about an hour, then set out to rise naturally. In addition to this type, he also makes a wheat bread that I assume is made with a similar process. Between 100 and 200 loaves are made each day, depending on daily demand.
The bread is only sold locally. Mr Apafi attempted to sell it to nearby stores at one point, but this idea eventually proved to make little sense from a business perspective because the stores often were late delivering payments and gave back the products they were unable to sell.
The bakery was established in 1986, while Romania was still under the communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, by Mr Apafi’s father. His father began working in a bakery in 1953, when he was 15 years old, and he and his wife eventually established the private bakery out of a common pot of agricultural funds set up by the communist government. Mr Apafi began working in the bakery in 1993, when his mother passed away. Ten years later, when his father passed, he took over and began operating the business with his wife. His son typically takes over for a week or two every year while Mr Apafi and his wife go on vacation, but I did not determine if the business will be passed to him. If his son does end up taking over, he will have to determine if he wants to continue the traditional methods of his father, or expand the business through advertising. His father’s current client pool knows about the bakery only through word-of-mouth, because the operation might become too large to comfortably continue the traditional methods and operate single-handedly.
Right now, his son does hold at least one serious responsibility: chief pancake maker. The village holds an annual pancake festival in February for which the bakery helps supply pancakes. It’s a big job, but his son has risen to the challenge, and will perhaps rise to the challenge of upholding the traditional Transylvanian bread-baking methods that his father works tirelessly to preserve. I’ll have to go back and check up on him one day.