The Knead to Bake
Exploring the craft of local bakers and their distinctive offerings of delicious breads and other yeasty confections
Nov. 23, 2011
The life of a baker isn’t glamorous, but it has its perks. Waking up at 3:30 in the morning is not one of them. The crazy hours can wear on these craftspeople who tolerate sleep deprivation in order to participate in a process that is both scientific and magical, depending on your perspective.
Let’s face it— it’s nothing short of amazing to walk away from a small ball of dough and return in an hour to find that it’s doubled in size. It’s a fascination that doesn’t get old for those like David Colby, who has been baking for 20 years. “[There are] not too many UC Berkeley grads who can say that,” he said with a knowing grin.
“I’m a scientist, a carpenter and many other things,” added Colby, who bakes at Wild Flour Bread in Freestone. Colby enjoys the hands-on, productive work that crafting a loaf of bread requires. “It’s very satisfying,” he said.
Bread, of course, is a staple, and as far as staples go, I think many would agree it’s the most delicious of the bunch. Not only is bread enjoyed solo or with just a little butter or jam, it’s the framework of a sandwich and a vital sidekick for dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, soup or stew.
The phrase “breaking bread” became synonymous with eating a meal and it communicates the significance that this particular food has had throughout history. Bread is emblematic of various religious and spiritual traditions. It’s been served in churches, prisons, palaces, and at picnics; it is a symbol of sustenance, etched into the human diet ever since humans began cooking and baking.
Long ago, every village or town had its bakery, where bread and possibly other goodies were made from scratch. In Sonoma County, that’s still mostly true.
Making bread can be tricky. “The factors change daily and the maker has to be in tune,” said William Seppi of Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg. Elements like the weather, moisture and heat as well as bacteria in the air can all play a role in the bread-making process where live yeast is involved. The dough formulas and reacting time may need adjustment on any given day.
“We live in a good area for sourdough,” said Colby. Wild Flour Bread, which is owned and run by Jed Wallach, is located just off of Bodega Highway and a lot of people stop by on their way to the coast. “We’ve never done any advertising; it’s all been word of mouth,” said Colby. The Super Seed and olive breads are the most popular selections.
The building’s large, open interior makes no attempt to hide the bread making process—it’s all right there within view. There’s a large table for shaping dough and a wood-fired brick oven in the back. Several large sacks of flour are stacked next to the wooden preparation table. The flour is from Utah, and Colby feels that the selection of flour is a very important decision when it comes to making good bread. “The flour is always changing,” he said, so keeping a close eye on how the flour is affecting the end product is something of a science project in and of itself.
All the dough is mixed the day before baking. Of the large specialty brick oven built by Alan Scott, a master of such creations, Colby explains that “brick oven baking is mysterious and involves infrared heat.” Colby admitted that it’s hard not to burn everything on the first bake when the brick oven is at its highest temperatures.
At 4:30 a.m. in the morning on bake day, the dough is shaped and placed into small, individual baskets lined with linen, and set on a series of wooden shelves where it will rise. “It’s a very traditional method,” said Colby who defined the bakery atmosphere as “West County” style.
Breads for sale are on display in the front and teal earthen bowls hold samples of several varieties for customer tasting. On occasion, the generous staff has been known to give out bread gratis with the promise that a customer will mail in the money. “We get these beautiful letters about how we’ve restored a person’s trust in humanity,” said Colby with a smile.
The bakery has an espresso machine and a few tables in front of a picturesque view out the window to open farmland. Paintings on the wall give an artsy, Boho vibe—a large elephant peers along a side wall and a flock of painted blackbirds cluster in a ceiling corner near the oven.
Outside there are wooden benches and usually a number of customer bicycles. The place is bustling at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning. “Often our business depends on the weather,” said Colby. Regardless of the weather, the bakery in Freestone is the only place one can obtain a loaf of Wild Flour bread. It’s not distributed to any stores, but business is steadily growing and the bakery pumps out up to 900 loaves a day.
Village Bakery in Sebastopol is another local bakery that has grown steadily. Started in Sebastopol 25 years ago, the bakery now has stores in Santa Rosa and Calistoga as well. All the bread, however, is made in Sebastopol, while the cakes are made at the other two locations.
You can find Village Bakery bread at Oliver’s, Whole Foods and other local cafes and markets. The seeded sourdough is a top seller but focaccia, Jewish rye and cinnamon raisin are a few other favorites that tend to fly off the shelves.
A community place with a strong clientele, Sebastopol’s Village Bakery has indoor and outdoor seating. “Our customers consider it to be their bakery,” ?said Manager Molly Bray, who feels that the continual good quality has earned people’s support. Regulars come every morning for local Taylor Maid coffee, bread ?and pastries.
Heading west out of Sebastopol on Highway 116, travelers arrive in the “if-you-blink-you’ll-miss-it” town of Forestville, home of Nightingale Breads. Baker and owner Beth Thorp is also a part-time nurse and the bread shop is named in honor of that profession’s Florence Nightingale.
“Nursing has been very good to me, it’s paid well, I’ve been able to travel; it got me where I am,” said Thorp. Some might wonder what the two professions have in common, but Thorp recognizes a few similarities. “They are both ways to nurture people, to serve. I love the way bread making mixes science with art. This is a way for me to be artistic.”
Like Wild Flour Bread, Nightingale Breads features an Alan Scott-designed, wood-fired brick oven. This historical and traditional way of baking produces a superior crust and flavor, but it also requires adjustment. Thorp admits that it practically required learning how to bake all over again. Keeping the fire going and learning how to use the brick oven took some time and training.
Nightingale Breads offers a classic French baguette, the Forestville French, which is their best seller. The multigrain seeded, rosemary focaccia, and rye are also popular along with seasonal specialties like pumpkin bread.
North of Forestville, the historic Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg prepares fresh bread daily for customers and has been doing so for a long time. ?“It’s the local clientele that has kept us going for 88 years,” said General Manager William Seppi.
The original French American Bakery started in 1923 and changed hands a few times before Karl and Nancy Seppi (William’s parents) bought the bakery in 1981. “In the beginning, the bakery sold bread to farmers in the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys, but often they didn’t pay until after harvest,” said Seppi.
The Seppis purchased the Costeaux Bakery from Jean and Anne Costeaux, and Jean taught Karl the art of bread baking with an emphasis on sourdough. The trademark hearth bread is renowned today for its crunchy crust but super-moist interior. Seppi grew up around the business, working alongside his parents at the ?café and bakery. His dad baked the bread and his mom sold the loaves at the ?front counter.
Karl Seppi developed the rustic French Country loaf and it remains a big seller, but it was the Seeded Sourdough Batard that won Best of Show at this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair. One of William Seppi’s favorites is the multigrain that features a touch of molasses. “I like to make a BLT out of this one, using applewood-smoked bacon and heirloom tomatoes,” he said.
Also located in Healdsburg is the Downtown Bakery and Creamery. Every day they offer sweet French, sourdough French, sourdough wheat-rye, and pugliese to those who visit the bakery on the downtown square. Some of the specialty breads made on a weekly basis include a whole wheat walnut, raisin cinnamon, and hot dog and hamburger buns. Sustainable practices and baking with the best local organic seasonal ingredients is what keeps patrons of this bakery coming back for more.
Following the bakery trail in Sonoma County can be deliciously fun, and may even inspire a few courageous souls to dabble in a lost art that used to be second nature to those who kept the home fires burning. Although bread making and baking can be time consuming or confusing, most who give it a whirl find the process quite rewarding, especially if the loaf comes out well. It’s one of those ego-boosting crafts that, if mastered, gives one a surge of self-confidence, not to mention grateful guests at the table.
Area codes 707
Costeaux French Bakery
417 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg
Hours: Mon. - Thurs. 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Fri. - Sat. 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun. 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Downtown Bakery and Creamery
308 Center St. #A, Healdsburg
Hours: Mon. - Fri. 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sat. 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun. 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
6665 Front St., Forestville
Hours: Wed. - Fri. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol
Hours: Mon. - Sat. 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Wild Flour Bread
140 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone
Hours: Fri. - Mon. 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.