Editors note: This is the second in an occasional series featuring successful small businesses located within local farmers markets.
By Lisa Z. Leighton
For The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — Each week at the Lewisburg Farmers Market, John Punako of Punako Lane Artisan Hearth breathes new life into old-world style artisan hearth breads, biscotti and pizza crust.
His passion for bread started with travel; he would go to urban areas like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Baltimore and taste different styles of artisan bread.
“I forgot how really good bread tasted,” he says.
When he realized he couldn’t find anything like it locally, he decided to create it himself.
He built a wood-fired hearth outside his home in Mifflinburg and over the years has perfected not only hearth-baked bread which bakes at 450 degres, but also how to fully utilize the heat cycle of the hearth to produce biscotti when the oven cools to 350 degrees and granola when the heat cycle dwindles to 250 degrees.
“Much of the process depends on outside air temperatures and the weather,” he admits.
John started baking bread commercially 3 years ago after taking classes in Pittsburgh and Indiana; eventually making it his full-time occupation, a welcome departure from his previous life as a builder.
At first, he offered his breads at the Lewisburg Pharmacy and Natural Food and Garden Store on Route 45 in Lewisburg, but soon decided to solely utilize the Lewisburg Farmers Market because of its wide variety of customers.
“The market offers an amazing cross-section of folks,” he says.
He lovingly creates European-style bread that was more common in the United States fifty or sixty years ago. The bread is unique because of its texture and flavor, which comes from unbleached flour, a long fermentation time, and a high baking temperature.
“It’s challenging and I’ve learned how to feel when the bread is done. It’s a learned skill,” he says.
He does not add preservatives to the bread, so the loaves are baked fresh the day before and day of the Market.
He produces and sells about 100 loaves a week at the Lewisburg Farmer’s Market. Sometimes customers stumble upon his bread stand or hear about his product from friends or neighbors, but many times he seals the deal with one free taste test.
His clientele includes many locals of course, but also appeals to those who are visiting the Susquehanna River Valley from Europe and Bucknell parents from urban areas. They echo the same sentiment that inspired him to start his business – missing the taste and texture of “real” bread.
“The toughest part is knowing what bread people will want, before they know that they want it,” he says smiling.
He notes that some customers with gluten sensitivities are able to tolerate his breads because he utilizes kamut wheat, an ancient grain from the high plains that has not changed in 2,000 years; it is prized for its buttery and nutty flavor, texture, and high protein. In fact, it contains 20 to 40 percent more protein than modern-day wheat.
Look for Punako Lane Artisan Hearth every Wednesday inside the Lewisburg Farmers Market or on Facebook. If you’re unfamiliar with artisan-style breads, not to worry, he offers free samples and free conversation about his techniques, ingredients, and process.
As one Facebook reviewer said of Punako, “He loves to talk bread. Worth every penny.”