It’s been a good year for Keith and Nancy Kouris, the owners of Blue Duck Bakery with stores in Southampton and Southold. In May, Saveur magazine found one of their artisanal breads to be number 5 on a list of their 20 favorites in the country.
That bread, a Finnish sour rye, known as ruisleipä in its home country, is just one of the many artisanal breads Keith Kouris bakes, and like the others, it adheres to its heritage.
“It’s a whole-grain rye with a natural starter,” he says, “which gives it its sour taste.” It’s dense, which make it easier to preserve. Indeed, in Finland the loaves are formed with a hole in the center so they can be hung on a clothesline to dry.
Keith hasn’t tried that yet. But he has tried, and made, a rye in the German tradition that adds sauerkraut to the dough.
“This is not like New York rye,” he cautions, referring to what we find in delis. Made with 60 percent rye flour and 40 percent unbleached white flour, it’s lighter than the ruisleipä, but cooked enough to keep the kraut from making it soggy. “It’s got a great tang to it.”
Keith’s baking career started when he and Nancy bought a deli in the early years of their marriage. Part of the inventory was a long-in-the-tooth Scottish baker. “I was fascinated by his work ethic,” Keith says. “He was in his late 60s, but he worked so long and hard and effortlessly.” And it made Keith realize how much there is to learn about baking. It’s not just bread, but cookies, pies and pastries. All things one has to perfect to become a master baker, a designation Keith now enjoys. The lessons lasted but not the business.
Keith moved to the baking department of the Bridgehampton King Kullen, and after a few years he and Nancy were ready to strike out on their own. The Blue Duck in Southampton opened in 1999. Expansion to Southold, the main bakery, was completed in 2008. Now a retail bakery will open in Riverhead in late summer, and the couple is planning, with the Town of Southampton, to open an even bigger production bakery in Riverside, just south of the traffic circle at the Peconic River.
Southold’s facility can no longer keep up with the demand from, among others, Whole Foods Market and a large number of restaurants on the East End and in New York, from white tablecloth to sandwich shops.
“We thank all the local support we’ve had these past 14 years,” says Keith, adding, as outsiders, he and his wife were unsure how they’d be received. But he believes their work ethic and the quality of their products have made them part of the community.
“They saw that many a night I slept in the bakery on flour bags,” he says, “and I think they appreciate that.”