The seeds for Rob VanKeuren’s obsession with sourdough bread were planted about eight years ago. That’s when, after being laid off from his longtime finance job, he took a trip to India. During that journey, the then-36-year-old decided not to seek a new finance job but instead to work with food.
In high school and college, he had worked in kitchens and loved that everyone was united around a common goal. He was also fascinated by the search for perfection, or something approaching it, for which chefs strive. “Being able to do something, again and again, every day and just get a little better at it just like an athlete would, I really enjoyed that about food service,” he says.
VanKeuren read Tartine Bread, a famous book by Chad Robertson, owner of the acclaimed Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. He became fascinated by the world of sourdough: an elemental world of living forces that needed to be understood and sometimes tamed in order to get the flavors VanKeuren sought.
Guided by tips from a global community of bread makers on Instagram, VanKeuren honed his technique. Before long he started his Flour Water Salt Bread pop-up at a Wilton restaurant, then moved to a Norwalk inn and tavern. After working out of other kitchens for a few years he opened a brick-and-mortar bakery in downtown Darien in 2018.
At the bakery today, everything is made with sourdough ferments, even the pastries, and no commercial yeast is used. To make sourdough bread you need what’s called a “starter,” a fermented mix of flour, water and natural microorganisms and yeast that float in from the air. Most bakers develop or find a starter with a desired flavor profile that they continuously feed and use over and over again.
For his bread, VanKeuren uses a starter he acquired from a baker in Naples, Italy. He also used it to create a separate sweet starter for his pastries.
The bakery is open 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday but items frequently sell out. By the time I arrive around lunchtime on a recent visit, the whole-wheat sourdough is gone. Fortunately, the sourdough loaf and sourdough baguette are still available. These beautiful breads are elite, with chewy doughs and flavorful crusts. They are matched by the pastries, which are rich, hearty and undeniably delicious.
“What you get with the sourdough is you get a fuller flavor, you get a better keeping quality, you get better texture,” VanKeuren says. “You don’t want a sour pastry, but you do want fluffy and light and fermented and a full flavor.”
The sourdough pastries here are definitely the latter. Croissants, cinnamon rolls, bomboloni (Italian filled doughnuts) and sourdough chocolate chip cookies are all exceptional. The palmier, or elephant’s ear, is so flaky and buttery, it’s a pastry dream come true.
On Thursdays, Flour Water Salt Bread offers pizza. It’s made with a naturally leavened dough. I try the “super margherita pizza” which has housemade basil oil and local ricotta in addition to the expected mozzarella and red sauce. The crust as well as the strength of the ingredients make this an excellent pizza and one worth timing your visit to try.
Flour Water Salt Bread
20 Grove St., Darien
Hours: Tue.-Sat. 8 a.m.–2 p.m. (or until sold out)