Ilon Silverman holds the slice of bread in both hands, looking down as if he were reading it. He closes his eyes and chews.

"There's not a word to describe it," he finally says. A pause. "There's probably many words."

The elusive, nuanced flavor of pain au levain - naturally leavened bread - is the reason Silverman wakes up every day.

It is 9 a.m. Wednesday. He has been at the small bakery in Avondale's new natural-foods market since 3:45.

Clad in a houndstooth cap and flour-stained apron, Silverman talks almost religiously about his bread, calling it "intoxicating," "zen," and "earthy." Each batch takes several days from start to finish.

"I feel lucky to be able to make bread for people - make real bread," he said.

The ancient bread-making technique Silverman uses has soared in popularity in recent years. Like organic groceries and farm-to-table establishments, long-fermentation bakers have multiplied across the country.

"There's more of a demand out there," said Michael Dolich, owner of Four Worlds Bakery in Philadelphia, which makes naturally leavened bread.

Bread connoisseurs and gluten-sensitive folks alike have become loyal to naturally leavened bread, which they say is easier to digest, more nutritious, and better tasting.

Silverman, 46, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Kennett Square, became curious about the technique at a young age. He started out at Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Massachusetts in the 1980s, he said, before doing various work in the Philadelphia area. In 2006, he moved to Washington state, where he was head baker at a bakery in Port Townsend.

After returning to Pennsylvania five years ago, he ran his bakery out of his house for a handful of customers until partnering with Avondale Natural Foods this year.

The borough had a void when it came to natural foods, store manager Art Wayne said. He thinks Avondale may be the latest community in Chester County - one of the region's fastest-growing areas - poised for a boom.

Housed in a converted bank building along Route 41, the grocery opened Jan. 26. Silverman's bread has already developed a small but growing following.

"We're trying to give bread a good name," Wayne said. "We're just trying to reintroduce bread back into the world."

For Silverman, the baking process starts at night, when he mixes the dough and tucks each loaf into its own wicker basket under French linen. In the morning, the doughs are turned out, scored with a razor blade, and baked at close to 475 degrees.

Rather than relying on commercial yeast to "puff up" the bread quickly, Silverman uses his own sourdough starter made from locally grown wheat, with which he creates just under 100 loaves per day.

The most important ingredient, and the most subtle, is time, Silverman said. Loaves rise, or ferment, for 12 hours.

Bread is vilified today as many try to cut gluten or carbs from their diets. But amid wheat's negative press, this niche of the bread industry is growing - and the bread is good for you, said Stephen Jones, director of the bread lab at Washington State University in Mount Vernon.

"A conventional industrial loaf of bread, it has a lot of high-horsepower stuff added to it," Jones said. "In less than three hours you go from dry flour to inside a plastic wrapper. Real bread, it's just getting started after three hours."

Fermentation makes nutrients such as iron and zinc more available and makes gluten easier to digest, Jones said.

And its flavor can't be beat.

"There are people who have a reverence for it," Silverman said. "Those people - bread people - they're passionate about it. We have no regret in eating it."

His bakery sits at the back of the new 2,000-plus-square-foot market. Not long after it opened Wednesday, a woman made a beeline toward Silverman's counter, sliding a loaf into a white paper bag.

"This is the best bread," said the customer, who didn't offer her name. "It makes the best grilled cheese."

Silverman said he doesn't feel as if he is competing with natural-food giants such as Whole Foods.

"This is just at a different level," he said, gesturing to his loaves, which cost $6.

And he doesn't mind the extra effort it takes to get there. He enjoys the early wake-up call and solitary hours. It is a labor of love, and of patience.

"I watch the sun rise, put on some classical music or reggae music, have some good coffee, and just work on my craft," he said.

People come to the market just for the bread, said Wayne. He pointed to Silverman: "He's an artist."

Silverman shook his head. "I'm just a baker," he said.

610-313-8205 @McDanielJustine