THE BLOG
08/01/2013 04:07 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

Yeasty Alchemy in Telluride

Like the air, culture tends to thin out and become rarefied above 8,000 feet. How else can you explain such anomalies as the bread at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant in Telluride, Colorado? Not the likeliest spot for a loaf that will make you swear you're in the mountains of Sicily. But Chef Chad, along with trusty head pastry chef Angela, succeeds in just that. And as with much of the cuisine in Telluride, it's a double win: learned globally, produced locally.

A ciabatta of old world style, the bread at Cosmo yields its charms easily: a satisfying mix of crusty surface and spongy interior. The first bite took me back to the Mediterranean where the Egyptians reputedly invented bread more than 3000 years ago. Some guess an observant ancient noticed that a bowl of wheat porridge left out overnight had morphed by morning into something very different -- a mass of bubbled dough twice the size it was the night before. Yeast bread was born.

Down in the bowels of the Hotel Columbia below the light and airy Cosmo dining room, I find Chad Scothorn and Angela Heuman working side by side. Clad in white, they wield spatulas and pepper grinders, busily preparing at noon for the evening meal. "I'm so tired I can't even think straight," says Angela, who is in the kitchen by 5 a.m. daily to begin making between 12 to 30 loaves of bread.

Chef Chad is slicing green tomatoes which he sprinkles with herbs and claps into the smoker. I've never had a smoked green tomato and I vow to return to try one. Sweeping the cutting board remains into a blender (nothing goes to waste in this kitchen), he whips the tomato bits into a liquid. The bartender is summoned to try the tangy froth and envision how it might be coaxed into a cocktail.

Imagination and experimentation clearly play important roles at Cosmo, but they are tempered by Chad's classical culinary education at Ecole Lenotre in France. Armed with his diploma, he began his chef career in Vail before deciding to take his skills to his hometown of Oklahoma City, from which he beat a quick retreat back to the Colorado mountains.

Angela Heuman studied general cuisine at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia and settled on breads and cakes. Cakes require meticulousness, bread calls for nurturing. Raising a loaf of bread is not unlike raising other creatures, for in fact, a yeast dough is a living thing.

Bread begins with precise measurements in grams of four simple ingredients: water, flour, yeast and salt. The magic of fermentation begins when water and warmth activate the enzymes in the flour and launch the yeast bacteria into motion- the dough comes to life. From there it's not so much a matter of chemistry as cultivation, of understanding the dough's needs. "Not everyone has a feel for it," says Angela. "You have to watch it and make adjustments depending on heat and humidity." If it's too hot, she moves the rising dough to the cooler, or adds a block of ice. If it's too cold, she finds it a warm spot by the ovens.

A member of the fungi family, yeast is one of the oldest organisms tamed by man. Domesticated yeast has been raising doughs and fermenting brews around the world for several millennia. But the single-celled organism needs the right conditions to ferment happily and produce the carbon dioxide, alcohol and organic acids that make brews and breads so tasty.

Yeast, like the rest of us, needs to be fed. Its favorite food is sugar, which it gets from converting the starches in the flour. If all the starch is used up and the yeast has nothing to eat, it dies and the bread won't rise. TLC is required. Chad Robertson of the famed Tartine bakery in San Francisco, when growing his sour dough culture (lactobacillus sanfranciscensis), has been known to take his fermenting bowl to the movies with him so it won't miss a feeding.

Bread making at Cosmo is a two-day process. The ciabatta gets its jump-start in life from a biga, an Italian-style starter culture that takes 24 hours to proof, or rise, to reach the proper level of fermentation. Angela then combines her starter with a mix of four different flours, fresh yeast, water and salt. Steel paddles turn the dough in an electric mixture for a good 20 minutes. This encourages strands of gluten to form from proteins in the flour. They've reached their proper level when the sticky dough pulls away from the bowl.

The synergy of fermented dough releases volatile compounds that burn off during baking but contribute to the taste and texture of the bread. The desirable holey-ness develops when carbon dioxide bubbles are trapped by the expansive gluten, which causes the bread to rise.

Angela minds the rising dough with a watchful eye, turning it here and folding it there to strengthen the gluten. "You want just the right amount of gluten," says Angela, as it determines the chewiness of the interior, or crumb. In between ministering to the dough, Angela makes blueberry pies, sorbets, and orders restaurant supplies.

After about four hours Angela checks the bread again -- it is risen! She cuts it into loaf shapes and sets them on parchment-paper lined trays to rest before baking. The dough is still so wet it jiggles like jello. Additional moisture comes through the oven's misting system. Fast evaporation under high heat creates a crisp exterior.

Baking bread fills the kitchen with comfort aromas of the most Proustian kind. When it's out of the oven, Chad cuts me a slice -- the dense chestnut crust gives way to a soft and elastic interior. There's a smooth sheen on the ivory crumb and a lovely balance of sweet to yeasty with a trace of tang in the finish. This culmination of the transformative process -- from a sodden mass of gray to a light and airy loaf- is true alchemy.

As bread anchored civilization, turning nomadic hunters into settled farmers, I feel the force of Cosmo bread tugging me to Telluride. Why stay at sea level if you can get the best of culinary culture at 8,750 feet?