A Glutton For West Side Gluten

Ursa Swift makes the bread, and Evan McAfee makes sandwiches

I was 12 years old when I noticed the simple pleasure of a piece of fresh bread: crusty on the outside, fragrant and chewy on the inside. Since I was 6, my mom would take my brother and me to her hometown of Barcelona, Spain, for summer vacation. We’d buy two baguettes every morning, and have one with lunch and one with dinner.

Biting into a piece, my teeth met little resistance with the crusty outside.

Flaky crumbs dropped to my plate and landed with a soft clink. I reveled in the delicate, springy, moist interior. We’d sop up sauce with it or eat it plain. My favorite way is the Catalan style called pa amb tomaquet, or bread with tomato: Slice open a baguette, rub it with a ripe tomato (only the juice and seeds are wanted), drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. It’s a slice of heaven!

On Kaua’i, I haven’t yet met a loaf that took me back to Spain until one day a friend suggested I go to the KCC farmers market and check out Midnight Bear Breads and baker Ursa Swift. One bite, and I knew I had a new love.

The Midnight Bear Breads selection includes new additions every week

The bakery gets its name from Ursa, which in Russian means female bear (the starry constellation), and the fact that the 25-yearold spends her midnight hours baking bread. Swift is originally from Vermont, where she learned how to bake European-style breads in a 35-year-old bakery, whose owner trained in Europe.

In Vermont, Swift studied environmental science, and baking was a way to pay the bills. When she moved to the Big Island, a friend rekindled her baking spirit. “He had some sourdough starter and was experimenting with different breads,” recalls Swift. “That was the first time I hand-kneaded bread at home!”

Last March she moved to Ele’ele. One day, as she was walking down the strip in Hanapepe town, she spotted Hanapepe Café. She went inside and asked owner and chef Helen Lacono for a job. Within a week she was the assistant baker, and has since earned her right as the cafe’s head baker.

For a single baker, her lineup is impressive. To develop complex flavors and extend shelf life, baguettes start with a Polish pre-ferment or starter called poolish. “It’s a wet, half flour, half water ratio that sits for 12 to 16 hours,” she says.

Rosemary and Sea Salt Baguette

Swift also makes batards, or mini baguettes. The baguettes ($7), and batards ($3.50) are topped with fresh garlic and basil; Hawaiian sea salt and rosemary; sesame, flax, poppy and fennel seeds; or fresh basil, thyme, oregano and Parmesan cheese.

Another bread that begins with a starter called biga a drier Italian technique is ciabatta ($4, large; $2.50, small), which means slipper in Italian. These small loaves come in a variety of flavors: Spanish and Kalamata olive; Cheddar and spice, and a fresh herb blend.

“Last week I used basil, rosemary and garlic chives because that’s what I found at the market. Sometimes, at 4 in the morning, I go to the little garden behind the cafe to pick fresh basil and rosemary,” she says, laughing at the memory of harvesting herbs with a flashlight.

Swift also bakes a sourdough ($6.50) using a “mother” she made last March. Additional baked goods include crusty French Rolls (75 cents each), Honey Wheat Bread ($7), soft and springy Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread ($8 large; $3 small), Blueberry Muffins ($2.50), and Macadamia Nut Pineapple Banana Bread ($3.50).

Swift’s fresh herb blend ciabatta

“Of course wheat doesn’t grow here, but I try to have as many organic and local ingredients as possible,” she says. “I use Hawaiian sea salt, sugar and local honey from Honi Honi Honey.”

Her fresh bread, still warm from the oven, can be purchased every Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. at the new gourmet farmers market in Old Town Koloa, or Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Kaua’i Community College farmers market. Her Big Island boyfriend Evan McAfee is by her side, and will take your choice of bread and make a sandwich.

“He varies them, but the sandwiches are always vegetarian, like grilled veggies, and he always uses fresh, local veggies from the markets,” Swift says. “He makes basil pesto mayo, hummus he always makes different fresh spreads.”

The Hanapepe Café & Bakery sells Swift’s bread, and uses her Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread to make its French toast and sandwiches.

“I like to eat my bread with Kunana goat cheese. We are right next to them at the market. At the end of market, we are so exhausted we take it to the beach.

Fresh baked artisan breads by Ursa Swift. Daniel Lane photos

“I sell (the bread) in paper, and that’s the best way to keep the crust nice and crisp for the first 24 hours. Beyond that, you want to keep it in plastic, but it’s really best fresh. When people buy a ton of bread, I suggest they freeze it,” she says, adding that defrosting at room temperature or in the oven depends on whether you want warm bread or not.

No matter how you slice it, if you are a fan of European-style bread, it’s worth the trip. Just come early because these breads go fast.

Midnight Bear Breads 917-584-6504 midnightbearbreads@gmail.com mlane@midweekkauai.com