For 45 years, Don Van Nice has been perfecting the art and science of baking the perfect loaf of French-style bread.
In his backyard west of Missoula, he uses a giant wood-fired adobe “earth oven” that he and a group of friends built using clay from his property. No matter if Mother Nature throws in a blizzard or pouring rain, he spends two full days every week baking his country-style, light sourdough loaves using traditional methods that he's perfected. It's a process that lasts from sunup to sundown, with very few breaks.
“I’ve fired the oven at negative nine degrees before,” he said. “It’s an adventure, you know, on rainy and windy days. I have to put tarps up to keep the moisture from coming in and messing up my bread.”
He baked 3,000 loaves last year, and that was a light year for him.
His wife, Andrée, is from France, and when they met in Bozeman in the 1970s Van Nice was an art student, baking bread in the ceramic kilns on campus.
“She took me to France, and I tasted that good bread back in 1975 and said ‘oh my God, we don’t have anything like this in Montana’,” Van Nice recalled. “So I started getting recipes and putting things together and trying to make good French bread. And everywhere we’ve traveled, in Greece and France, they have big adobe ovens. So I decided to make one here.”
He lights a pile of scrap wood donated from local yurt company Shelter Designs inside the oven the night before, then burns another fire for two hours early in the morning on baking day. The oven reaches a temperature of 800 degrees when he clears the burn pile out, then he lets it cool down. The bricks retain enough heat to bake dozens of loaves all day long.
“It’s amazing how it holds the heat,” he said.
Often working 10- or 12-hour days, he bakes between 30 and 60 loaves on Wednesdays and delivers them to customers. Then he does the whole thing again on Friday and sells the loaves at the Missoula Valley Winter Market (inside the Missoula Senior Center) on Saturdays as “Earth Oven Bread.” He also sells at the farmers markets in the summer.
Van Nice says he loves baking because it gives him exercise, allows him to socialize and provides bread for he and his wife.
You have free articles remaining.
“And it gives me my beer money,” he said with a grin.
Van Nice is a retired Forest Service cartographer, and he puts a lot of thought and research into his bread making.
“Making bread is all about timing,” he said, explaining how he’s perfected a system to give some loaves a nice blackish scorching on the crust that some customers pine for. He even researched videos on how to form the loaves, so now he forgoes a common "stretching" technique in favor of his own personal folding method that keeps bubbles to a minimum and reduces strain on his wrists.
He uses flour from Wheat Montana, and the only other ingredients are salt, yeast and water. A decade ago, he gathered a group of 12 friends and built the oven in one day. The oven gets hot enough to get the loaves to rise to form in five minutes, and they’re done baking in half an hour. Then he jumps in his truck and delivers them to the homes of friends and longtime customers.
Local filmmakers Eric Ristau and his wife, Geneva, met Van Nice five years ago when they visited the market.
“We became friends, as most of his customers seem to be,” Ristau recalled. “His wife is from France, and her relatives came to visit and asked him for the recipe. That’s pretty indicative of his skill level. They’re amazing people.”
Andrée is an accomplished ceramicist and sells her fruit preserves at the market alongside her husband.
Ristau said his two young children are huge fans of the bread and of the couple.
"When Don and Andrée show up on the front porch, we’re the last house on their stop, and when they come in we visit and that bread is three quarters gone in half an hour,” Ristau said. “We took our kids to the D-Day anniversary in France this year, and they’d say ‘this bread is just like Don’s’.”
A short documentary by Ristau about Don Van Nice and his bread, which premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2017, can be seen at vimeo.com/203371829/d6bbb9fa3d.