From the San Francisco Chronicle:

A Passion for Artisan Breads
The wild bakers of Freestone attract a natural following

Abbi Kaplan

Wednesday, March 1, 2000

When it comes to making bread, 46-year-old Jed Wallach is an unlikely renegade. In just a year and a half, his organic bakery, Wild Flour Bread, has made a name for itself among faithful customers who travel miles to sample his latest homemade creations and linger around the picturesque barnlike building.

Usually clad in a faded T-shirt and shorts, Wallach and four bread makers craft nearly 700 loaves of one-of-a-kind breads -- by hand -- four days a week. There are no large mixing or kneading machines in sight -- they would only sully the store's bucolic spot in historic Freestone, a hamlet sandwiched between Sebastopol and Occidental.

Stopping by the store is the only way to buy Wallach's bread; it's sold only at the bakery. But going to Wild Flour and sampling the breads -- all of them leavened with Wallach's sourdough starter -- is half the experience.

The other half is watching the bread being made, or smelling it emerge fresh from the wood-burning brick oven -- Wild Flour's other rustic draw.

Every afternoon around 3:30, with the sounds of techno and reggae music overhead, the young bakers knead and mold about 650 pounds of dough into loaves of various shapes and textures. Around a large table just behind the counter, Wallach's daughter, Mia, 18, and friend Michelle Lyon, 17, both art students, mix and roll the larger-than-life dough.

Like the store's name, "wild," is the best way to describe both the bread and some of the bakers, all of whom recently died their hair green and purple -- artists' work.

Like staging a performance piece, they sprinkle bucket-loads of raisins, pecans, dried orange peel, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter onto the dough to create Wild Flour's oddly shaped but incredibly popular sticky buns.

"Half the fun is experimenting," says Mia, who creates most of the weekly concoctions and thought up the store's name. "The best way to keep things interesting is to come up with new flavors."

Lately, those flavors include everything from Jungle Bread -- a plump dose of bananas, walnuts and cardamom -- to Bohemian Bread -- a blend of apricots, orange peel, pecans and sugar. Although there are some traditional varieties, like seeded French and sunflower wheat, none of the bread tastes ordinary.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE

Keith Zinn, one of the bakers, likes the sunflower wheat, because "the oils from the seeds kick in right when you're about to swallow." In between bites, the 31-year-old Sonoma Community College cake design student measures pound upon pound of flour, salt and herbs for one of the other signature breads -- rosemary and kalamata olive wheat.

The nearby garden supplies all the herbs for the breads and will eventually become Wallach's source of organic vegetables. Now overgrown with raspberries, which he planted near the bakery's parking lot, the garden is a big hit with kids, who seem to consider the breads and raspberries a local delicacy. All of the breads are made from either the milled spelt or whole- wheat sourdough base, giving them a sturdy consistency and allowing them to last longer than most loaves.

Friday through Monday, Wallach and his crew arrive at the store around 5 a.m. to begin cutting the dough that has risen from the night before. They use razor blades to "scale" or carve eclectic patterns, like elaborate hearts for Valentine's Day, on the surface of the bread while the oven cools to optimal warmth -- about 500 degrees. The first loaves go into the oven around 7 a.m. At 4 p.m. the bakers begin mixing dough again for the next morning's batch.

"There's always something warm here," Wallach says of the bread and homey surroundings. In the store's entrance, a long wood table beckons customers to linger, eat, and gaze out the large front window, which frames the serene landscape.

TEMPTING SMELLS

On most days, the table is packed, as the bread and the bright-red building have become something of a local phenomenon. Day trippers from all over the Bay Area drive to Freestone just to sample Wallach's creations.

"I could smell the bread being baked at 8 this morning," says Diane Rusnak, who drove to the bakery from San Pablo. The flavor of the sticky bun, she says, "dances on your tongue."

Marty and Chris Martinez came from El Sobrante just to pick up a few loaves of their favorite bread, the olive rosemary. "It has a zip to it," Marty quips as he samples Jungle Bread and watches the bakers roll out the day's dough.

Wallach is a proponent of mixing his bread by hand rather than by machine because it keeps too much air from penetrating the dough. "We never intended to create those huge, lofty loaves that commercial breadmakers make," he says. What he calls the bread's "tightly webbed texture" is also due to the consistency of the spelt sourdough itself.

"The sugar is contained in the crust, so you get a lot more flavor," Wallach says.

The secret to the breads' the thick outer crust and supple inside is not just the organic ingredients but the way the bread is baked -- in a large wood-burning brick oven. Fired by eucalyptus wood, the oven reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees and higher before leveling off to a constant temperature for baking.

Wallach commissioned Alan Scott, the renowned iron worker and oven-builder from Tomales Bay, to design the brickwork. Scott has designed more than 100 wood-fired brick ovens, including those at San Francisco restaurants Hawthorne Lane and Mecca.

Scott also provided important grist -- and inspiration -- for Wallach's bread.

A GROWING PASSION

Three years before opening Wild Flour, Wallach and a girlfriend started baking bread in one of Scott's adobe ovens on a ranch near Two Rock. "Jed showed up on the scene and got very interested," Scott says. At the time, veteran Point Reyes bread baker, Chad Robertson, was baking out of Scott's home. Wallach studied Robertson's technique and began baking bread a few nights a week at Bay Village bread. Wallach then began baking bread every Friday on his own in Two Rock, making up to 150 loaves each week.

Before he became a professional baker, Wallach, like most of his current employees, was a struggling artist who followed his instincts -- after everything else in his life seemed to fizzle.

Born in San Francisco, Wallach briefly attended Humboldt State while exploring his first passion -- stained glass. During his junior year abroad in Paris, he worked as an apprentice at the prestigious Atelier Pierre Gaudin, restoring the windows of Chartres cathedral. At the same time, he discovered his second passion -- baguettes with apricot jam. "I became aware of what the pleasure of good bread was," Wallach says. "It was always a visual delight to go into a French bakery."

After returning to the U.S. in 1974, Wallach and his wife opened two stained glass studios in San Francisco and Berkeley. But the pace was too frantic for Wallach, who remembers being "just a businessman." He later sold the stores to his now ex-wife, and the only remnant of his work is in the bathroom at Wild Flour, a large stained glass window depicting Japanese plums.

Wallach then worked as a contractor for six months to learn how to frame buildings. The skills he acquired gave him the inspiration to renovate the old barnlike structure that now houses Wild Flour.

A SLICE A DAY. . .

Once the bakery opened, Wallach, a single parent of four, wasn't sure if it would be able to sustain itself. But he quickly made a name for himself by packing his bread with enough seasonal, "wild" ingredients to make one slice a complete meal. Recently, he combined Montasio cheese, baked potatoes, onion and sage to create a version of fougasse, a long, ladder-shaped bread. The crust is hard and crisp, and it's meant to counteract the chewy, intense flavors inside.

"We've had something short of a miracle," Wallach says of the store's success. Customers now come in as soon as the store opens each week and ask, "What are you cooking today, Jed?"

He refers the questions back to his daughter, Mia, whose most recent experiments include Ruby Bread with cranberry, almonds and nutmeg; Egyptian with pear, fig and candied ginger; and Squash Loaf with butternut squash, curry and orange.

Wallach's youngest son, Ben, 10, recently came up with the idea of making vegetarian pizzas on Fridays and Mondays. The pizzas, which include one topped with Brie, red peppers, artichoke hearts and fresh tomatoes, are selling like hotcakes.

Despite his success and pressure from customers to start making his breads and pizza more widely available, Wallach is reluctant, encouraging his fans to experience Wild Flour in person. "People ask every week (about selling my bread on the Web) and I decline every week," he says, brushing back his brown hair. "It just doesn't fit with my plans."


WILD FLOUR BREAD Address: 140 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone. From Highway 101, take the Hwy. 12 West exit toward Sebastopol. Stay on Hwy. 12 through Sebastopol; Approximately four miles past Sebastapol, take Bohemian Highway to Freestone, about 15 miles from the Highway 101 turnoff. -- Telephone: (707) 874-2938 -- Hours: Friday through Monday 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. -- Selection and prices: About 7 or 8 kinds of breads (which are always changing) are available each day, including sticky buns and other sweet breads. Prices range from $2.25 to $5. Pizzas are available on Fridays and Mondays for $13 for a 14- inch pizza. ..

Abbi Kaplan is a free-lance writer and a student in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

This article also available at:
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2000/03/01/FD26043.DTL&hw=wild+flour+bread&sn=004&sc=721

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