If Herodotus is to be believed, the first word known by the children of the earliest Western tribe, the Phrygians, was “bread”—before they even knew what bread was. Knowledge of the staff of life is born with us. It’s no surprise, then, that every baker’s-dozen years or so, indifferent to fads of gluten-freedom and even the paleo diets that supposedly predate bread, it has another popular moment. 

Ninth Street Bakery’s artisan bread program is likewise old and new—and, like the bakery itself, it hides in plain sight. The bakery has been in business for a third of a century, most of it in a massive space smack in the middle of downtown Durham. Its retail, pastry, coffee (roasted in-house), and lunch business are brisk, and its breads are sold all over the Triangle and the Triad. Yet it’s remarkable how many people have never heard of the place.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the bakery’s artisan breads are also easy to miss, forthrightly but modestly arrayed on shelves right next to the ordering counter. It’s a pity, because they might be the Triangle’s best. How they came to be there is a story with considerable proofing.

Back in 2010, Ari Berenbaum met Alex Ruch in the ferment of the Triangle’s graduate philosophy programs, Ph.D. candidates at UNC and Duke, respectively. Both were researching twentieth-century philosophy, including some of the same French post-structuralist theorists. But it was a different chewy Gallic tradition that got them introduced: a mutual friend knew they were both bread aficionados. Berenbaum was moonlighting as Ninth Street Bakery’s head baker; Ruch was baking intensively at home.

“I was writing my dissertation, and I was looking for something to do that was more tactile than sitting at a computer,” Ruch says. “I was reading the ingredient list from some good bread I was eating”—by the local La Farm Bakery, Ruch recalls, “and it was just flour, water, and salt. I thought, ‘That’s an interesting challenge. How do you make great flavor out of something that involves three ingredients?’ I was also trying to live on a budget because I was a grad student. Cheap ingredients that make delicious food seemed like an appealing prospect.”

In 2011, Berenbaum launched a pop-up bake stand under his last name, in collaboration with Ruch, which set up catty-corner from the Durham Farmers Market on Saturday mornings and quickly developed a following. In 2012, Ruch moved to New Orleans for a five-year post-doc appointment at Tulane, but he wound up studying bread along with philosophy, landing a job at the budding Bellegarde, Graison Gill’s bakery that helped revive artisan baking culture in New Orleans. Ruch continued to teach at Tulane, but “as it went on, I found that the baking started coming to the forefront.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, Berenbaum—who says UNC failed his dissertation at the proposal stage (“I guess Gilles Deleuze was too interdisciplinary and subversive for them”)—bought Ninth Street Bakery from its founder, Frank Ferrell, and kept pestering Ruch to come back and reboot its artisan bread program, which was essentially defunct. 

“Literally every year after he left for Tulane, I would say, ‘Alex, hey, you wanna come back and bake some bread with us?’” he says.  

In 2017, Ruch, who missed Durham, did just that. Ninth Street Bakery’s powerful but mostly neglected hearth ovens—“essential to the crusty European breads Alex wanted to make,” Berenbaum notes—were fired back up, and its program was reborn.

Ruch began with three breads that were staples at Bellegarde: a country batard that is addictively delicious and deeply hearty, along with elegant baguettes and ciabatta. As befits a philosopher, Ruch spent months studying and experimenting with Ninth Street’s equipment and the local Lindley Mills flour the bakery uses, using some techniques he learned at Bellegarde. 

“Long, cold overnight fermentation,” he says, “and a little bit of sourdough. It helps with the flavor and the color. You want the elasticity of high-protein bread flour, but I had to balance that with the extensibility of all-purpose flour to come up with the right proportions. Once I had the basic setup, I started exploring some of the other things I hadn’t worked on or hadn’t been able to do. 

“I was always really interested in rye. It’s gotten a bad rap. People associate rye with caraway, but the truth is that rye has its own flavor, often masked with caraway.” 

(Many people don’t realize that the taste often associated with rye is actually caraway seed.)

Scandinavia has long known about rye, and soon, Ruch added to his weekly lineup a sweet-and-sour Swedish limpa and a Danish rugbrod. These are both serious, complex breads, dense in texture and deep in flavor, the kind you contemplate as you chew. (He’s also recently offered an oatmeal spice bread redolent of cardamom, a favorite Scandinavian flavor.) They point toward a deeper philosophy evident in Ruch’s baking: that bread is a proper food, not merely an accessory to it, much more than just something with which to bracket a sandwich, or to ignore in an ornamental basket during dinner. 

This bread is made not only for bread lovers, but to make more of them.

Despite its low profile, Ninth Street Bakery is quietly thriving. Its revenues have doubled since Berenbaum took over, revitalizing “the oldest game in town,” as Ruch calls it. “It already has a brand identity”—which paradoxically may explain why its relaunched bread program has flown under the radar. 

But philosophers, like bakers, are patient by nature, “and not that good at selling,” Berenbaum says. 

He takes pride in the bread alone. “When I think about what Alex has done with the program,” he says, grinning, “I’m literally kvelling.” 

Contact us at food@indyweek.com.