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Artisan Bakers Prosper in Low-Carb World

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DUXBURY, Vt. (AP) _ Randy George has a phrase to describe the bread he bakes: ``enjoyable carbohydrates.''

``The food is good _ I really do believe that,'' said George, his work clothes covered with a thin dusting of flour. ``We do all need a certain amount of carbs.''

George's company, Red Hen Baking, makes ``artisan breads,'' hearty, crusty loaves baked without additives or preservatives. And in this era of all things low-carb, George and other artisan bakers say business is prospering as customers shun refined breads for the organic, whole-grain flour and local ingredients used in their handmade varieties.

``They've taken the time to educate customers on what it is they are actually buying when they're buying artisan products,'' said Gina Piccolino, executive director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. ``Be educated _ don't just get caught up in a fad diet.''

Piccolino backed up her claim with a recent survey of the guild, which boasts 1,300 members from home bakers to suppliers.

The guild surveyed its 260 artisan bakeries last year, and 78 percent of the 202 who responded said sales remained level or grew from 2002 to 2003. In the same poll, 92 percent said sales of partial or fully whole-grain breads and pastries stayed the same or grew during the same period.

The numbers reveal buyers' preference for wholesome breads crafted by the hand of the baker, not the machine, Piccolino said.

``Multigrain, whole-grain, whole-wheat kinds of products are good for you,'' she said.

Artisan breadmaking has its origins in the ethnic bakeries of America's immigrant communities, Piccolino said.

But the kind practiced today is more of a ``renaissance,'' she said, a phenomenon that began roughly at the same time as the back-to-the-land and natural foods movements of the 1970s. And artisan bakers tend to hold many of the same values associated with those movements: a belief in healthy living, a respect for nature, a commitment to using local ingredients.

The evolution of O'Bread, an artisan bakery in Shelburne, reflects the history and values of that renaissance.

O'Bread _ the name is inspired in part by a Japanese prefix that connotes appreciation or admiration _ has kept its focus local since Chuck and Carla Conway started the bakery in 1977. Using wheat grown on a farm in Bridport, the Conways stay close to home when it comes to marketing their bread: Most of it is sold at markets and natural food stores in and around Shelburne, with some taken by courier to Montpelier and across Lake Champlain to New York. A few loaves are sent via United Parcel Service to customers in Michigan and Virginia.

``It's a nice little close circle,'' said Chuck Conway, 54.

O'Bread was one of a small number of bakeries of its kind in the country when it started in the late 1970s, Conway said. At the time, Conway said, he and his wife made heavy breads with ingredients like beer. The market for such breads was limited.

``You wouldn't take them to mother,'' he recalled. But the couple gradually widened their repertoire, making breads with unbleached white flour _ classic French baguettes and ciabatta, an Italian bread characterized by its Swiss cheese-like holes _ that proved to be more popular.

``The product is so different than what used to be available,'' said Conway, referring to the refined breads that once dominated the supermarket aisle. ``People try it and like it.''

That simple dictum seems to mean good business for O'Bread, whose sales have been unaffected by the growing popularity of low-carb products.

``We haven't noticed a change in our overall sales or our business pattern,'' Conway said. With one notable exception.

``We do have people asking me about low-carb bread,'' he said, laughing.
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