Bread and Circuses

Posted by: Isis

The lovely and talented Isis Hockenos delves into the bread business in this week’s fascinating feature story spotlighting local makers and innovators.

There is a bustling, flour-dusted community of the wee morning hours, tucked away into glowing kitchens. From re-purposed turn of the century storefronts on the East Bay to barns in Sonoma to back yard cottages on the tip of Marin, all across the region, the Bay Area’s hearth-fires burn.

Since the advent of humankind, fire has served as an agent of unity. It nurtures and comforts those touched by its glow. The fire is a place to cook and to be together, the cornerstone of community. In many rural villages across Eastern Europe, The Middle East and North Africa, a communal oven still burns in the town’s center. This allows each family to do their baking and interact with their neighbors while sharing the responsibilities of the facility.

While San Francisco is a far cry from rural Turkey, the Bay Area possesses a particular spirit of community and dedication to quality, sustainability and the integrity of the human spirit. This inclination is demonstrated through the recent revival in communal dining, experienced in our back yards, farm yards and re-claimed junk yards, kitchens and schools. It is present too in an ever-growing community of dedicated bread bakers inspiring one another to put the soul back into food through their meditating craft, working in small batches and using traditional methods. What consumers receive is a loaf that has been hand-shaped, tended to and cared for, from starter to crust. Whether sourdough, French, rye or multigrain, each loaf seduces with its pragmatic and honest qualities.

As any baker will attest, to bake by hand is an intense labor of love. It is weather dependent, time sensitive, physically demanding and requires a dedication bordering on obsession. And there is, of course, the infamous sourdough starter, whose health and unique characteristics (dependent on weather, feeding etc.) are definitive in the outcome of the loaf.

Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery has become a household name since his start as Bay Village Bakers in Pt. Reyes Station in the early nineties, after his return from France. There, in an oven built by the late Alan Scott, an Australian turned West Marin local and masonry oven artist, Chad began the long journey to the perfect loaf.

While there, Marianne Wiener, a native Dane and fellow West Mariner, began her own bread production called Anna’s Daughter’s Rye Bread. Marianne would use the residual heat from Chad’s morning fire to bake the brown loaves of dense rye bread bound with twine, now available at Tartine, Bi-Rite and local Farmers’ Markets as well as other outlets. Her bread is perfect for an open-faced sandwich topped with anything from cheese and tomato to pickled herring to Nutella. (Marianne now lives in Sausalito and bakes at La Cocina in the Mission).

When Chad, with wife and partner Liz, moved on to Mill Valley, Celine Underwood of Brick Maiden Bread took over his house and his oven, and thus the legacy continued. Next to appear was Matt Kreutz, now co-owner of and head baker at Firebrand Artisan Bread, in Oakland. He began to carve out his Bay Area niche by moving into Celine’s house and taking on baking responsibilities at Brick Maiden. Although Celine now bakes in a new oven contracted by Malcolm Chase, the design remains Alan’s, her loaves come out well crusted and moist in the center, the smoke of the almond wood on which she depends drifts idly through the coastal morning fog and the energy of all the bakers to come before still permeates the property.

Because Firebrand Artisan Breads, which boasts the only wood-fired oven in Oakland, has virtually no online presence, delivers exclusively to Bi-Rite and Rainbow Groceries as well as supplying many of the Bay Area’s restaurants including Flour and Water and Foreign Cinema, their delightful bread has remained a tragically well-kept secret. (They too bake in an oven contracted by Malcolm Chase). Unlike Chad who bakes only one loaf and whose bread has a large internal cell-structure, Matt’s has a smaller internal cell-structure, resulting in a slightly heartier, rustic loaf, deserving of fresh goats milk and pads of butter. Because of the varying tastes of the upward of eighteen restaurants supplied by Firebrand, the bakery is quite versatile in its production. For instance, German restaurant Suppenkuche is pining after potato bread for their new beer garden. Matt says that research into the history of the style has inspired him to start experimenting, and additionally we can expect soft pretzels to appear on Bi-Rite shelves in the coming months.

Bakers like Chad and Matt bake for the same reason a writer continues to write, a painter to paint. The constant ache to achieve the “perfect” truth, be it story, image or loaf. For these devotees it may take a lifetime to find satisfaction, but there is another sort of baker, the child of the hybrid digital-DIY age. One such man is Josey Baker, the audacious fellow behind Josey Baker Bread. As his blog informs us, Josey is a self-taught, ad hoc baker who, through trial, error, and long hours with Chad’s bread bible Tartine Bread, has come to produce one of San Francisco’s most prized homegrown loaves.

Although he started out baking for pleasure in his apartment’s small kitchen, Josey’s object quickly became to unite good bread with good people. In doing so, and through his vivacious online presence, he has become a favorite of indie blogs and foodies across the internet. This has been a way for Josey to inadvertently bridge the void between the kitchen and the consumer. While such a method may seem incongruous with the traditional stoicism of the baker, there is something to be said for the courage it takes to display ones vulnerabilities in a public space. On Josey’s blog, each mishap and triumph of the baking process is presented through saccharine narrative and playful photos, with (almost) equal regard. Why then, with the abundance of fastidiously honed bakers in the region, are San Franciscans excited by this newcomer? True, his bread has benefited from the instrumental encouragement of Chad, the generous residual heat of Charlie’s oven at Pizzaiolo, and other industry people happy to share advice, space and resources, but beyond his respectable loaf, the answer is perhaps his undeniable earnestness.

That earnestness is the badge of the independent craftsman. In the Bay Area the energy that nurtures this earnestness is produced by rolling hills and by white-capped waves. By gentle farmland and the lines of the city. Such a dynamic cradle can hardly help but be an incubator for perfection.

Plus see the Bread and Circus compendium for a list of other fresh breadmakers to check out!