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Upper Crust

The San Francisco Bay Area has led us back from
mass-manufactured sliced loaves to
artisanal bread-baking at its finest

ANDREA PFLAUMER / The Monthly v.37, n.2, 1nov2006


Bread Banter

When slicing into a loaf of hearty artisan bread, Kass Schwin suggests using a good serrated bread knife. If you don't eat the entire loaf at one sitting, slice it up and place it in freezer bags in your freezer. Unsliced, a whole frozen loaf will take about three hours to thaw. To reconstitute dry bread, sprinkle it with water and put in a hot oven for a few minutes.

When choosing a bread with added ingredients, be sure the enhanced bread will complement the rest of the meal. Breads with dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots) or nuts (walnuts, pecans) are perfect for breakfast or snacks. More savory breads with kalamata olives or garlic go well with lunch or dinner.

Crumbs of Knowledge

Baguette: Sour or sweet; long, thin loaf with chewy center. Good with cheese, butter or as a base for hors d'oeuvres.

Batard: Long but fatter than baguettes, usually with a crusty surface, sometimes made with whole grains. Can be sweet or sour. Good with hearty foods like soups or for making sandwiches.

Challah: A light, chewy, soft-crusted bread glazed with egg on top. Excellent for breakfast and sandwiches. Great in bread pudding.

Ciabatta: A flat, chewy, light, airy bread with a slightly nutty flavor.

Fougasse: A savory, soft, sometimes flat, rectangular loaf made with olive oil and herbs. Great for sandwiches.

Pain au Levain: Hearty, complex and nutty bread. Has a crunchy crust, sometimes made into long or round loaves or rolls. Great with soft cheese or hearty soups.

Pugliese: A long, fat loaf with a bubbly interior and a more delicate crust. Great with soups, for sandwiches or toasted for breakfast.

Rye: A hearty, often sour and savory bread made with caraway seeds and often a combination of flours including rye. A good breakfast bread or for sandwiches with milder or salty flavor, such as smoked salmon.

Sourdough: A kind of natural yeast starter found in a number of bread varieties including baguettes, pains au levain and olive breads. The more sour-flavored ones are good with spicy food or seafood dishes, like cioppino.

Among the casualties of the Industrial Revolution was the local neighborhood bakery, whose storefront windows lured us in with rows of hearty and lovingly rendered loaves. Soon, our daily bread was mass-manufactured, presliced and available on the supermarket shelf. These spongy loaves lacked nutritional content and the sensory delights of freshly baked bread: the yeasty fragrance and complex flavors, the robust weight, the slightly imperfect shape that identifies a hand that made it. Fortunately for us in the East Bay, the tradition of local artisan baking was resurrected long ago.

In the summer of 1978, while riding his bicycle through the streets of London, Steve Sullivan discovered a scholarly volume by the famed British food writer Elizabeth David entitled English Bread and Yeast Cookery. He returned to Berkeley, continued busing tables at Chez Panisse and took up baking as a hobby, attempting to duplicate the rustic breads he found in Paris. Eventually, his boss, Alice Waters, encouraged him to do some baking for the restaurant. Soon she discovered that his bread was better than the ever-worsening stuff she bought elsewhere.

"Alice said, `Could you get up early and bake for the restaurant?"' recalls Sullivan.

The seeds of Berkeley's Acme Bread Company were planted in those wee hours and by 1983, Sullivan and his wife Susan had hung up a shingle for their now-famous bakery and store on San Pablo Avenue. "There was a bread vacuum, and we filled it," says Sullivan.

But perhaps he more aptly described both the culinary and cultural influence that spawned the artisan bread scene in Berkeley when he said, "There is a lively ferment here."

What began at Acme as a movement to bring back artisan bread-baking in the European style blossomed into a vital scene of bread-bakers here in the East Bay. Those baking in the rustic, artisan tradition joined others who had already been providing healthful, handmade loaves.


In the early 1970s, the East Bay saw a trend toward food choices that reflected awakening cultural values. The "back-to-the-earth" crowd demanded wholesome food and wanted to keep East Bay neighborhoods intimate and human-scaled. As a result, the community saw the flourishing of local produce outlets, butcher shops and bakeries, similar to those found in Europe and other parts of the world.

You might think that with so many similar companies in a relatively small geographic area, the bread business would be rather cutthroat. But ask these bakers about one another and you'll discover that, as Eric Sartenaer of Berkeley's Phoenix Pastificio put it, "We're all family," and a somewhat incestuous family at that.

The family tree traces its roots back to 1963 at the Tassajara Zen center in the Carmel Valley, when a group of monks began baking as a form of meditation. Noted for their homey whole-grain loaves, Tassajara was popular with the hippie crowd. In 1976, Kass Schwin and her former husband and business partner Joe opened Vital Vittles, a flour mill that provided fresh, organic flour to hobbyist bakers and local bakeries, including Tassajara.

By that time the Cheeseboard Collective, a favorite hangout for Berkeley denizens, started offering bread, produced outside the store in small batches by various bakers. In the heady early days of Chez Panisse, Eric Sartenaer donated his time to Alice Waters after his regular shift at the Cheeseboard across the street. Eric and his wife Carole founded Semifreddi's Bakery in Kensington in 1984 but were overwhelmed by their own quick success. "We couldn't keep up with the demand and it was putting a strain on our marriage," explains Eric. In 1987, they sold the company to Barbara Rose, then an employee at Semifreddi's. Her husband Michael quit his job and joined her immediately. Her brother Tom Frainier, a refugee from corporate America, joined in 1988 and together they moved the bakery operation to Emeryville the following year.

While Acme's Steve Sullivan was still baking for Chez Panisse, chef Jeremiah Tower suggested that he take a look at restaurateur Narsai David's bakery in Kensington to learn about large-scale equipment for bread production. "A number of our first employees came from Narsai's," Sullivan says. "In those days, being able to find people who could bake, [mostly] Zen monks and wild kids who had worked at Narsai's, was a leg-up for us."

In 1989, another Chez Panisse alumna, former pastry chef Diane Dexter, started Metropolis Baking Company with her husband David, later turning over the reins to her brother Perry. Metropolis's head baker, Robin Alexander, worked at both Acme and Semifreddi's. And when Elmwood's La Farine Bakery came up for sale, Jeff Dodge, who had spent six years with Acme, purchased it with encouragement and advice from Steve and Susan Sullivan.

Let Them Eat Baguettes

But you have to go back a lot further than the '70s to trace the Bay Area's history with good bread. If you've ever tried to order sour-dough toast in New York, you know that San Franciscans discovered more than gold in the 19th century when they introduced a particular kind of yeast starter that made their sourdough bread unique in the world. Lore has it that there's literally something special in the air here.

Tom Frainier, co-owner of Semifreddi's Bakery in Emeryville, dispels one part of the myth: "Anytime you mix flour and water there are yeasts in the air that will help it ferment," he says. But it is also true that our ocean breezes and temperate climate are ideal for the production of baked bread. Too much heat, aridity or frost can ruin a batch of starter or slow the rising process. In fact, the weather is so important that for 19 years Frainier has posted a weather report in his daily management memo. "I now think I can predict the weather better than the weatherman," he laughs.

Some of the best bakers here have never even purchased commercial yeast, preferring to coax the yeasts out of the air to generate what they call "mother" or "starter" doughs. Many artisan bakeries have their own starters, created decades earlier, which they've borrowed from, added to and re-created over the years. Stephan Barbiero, director of innovation for Grace Baking, says, "You are working with something alive. You have to guide and control it, like wine or cheese."

The very first yeasted breads may have appeared around 5000 BC, the likely result of an accidental mixture of errant yeast spores from a beer-making operation and some nearby flatbread dough. Later, enclosed ovens boosted the popularity of risen bread in those European and Middle Eastern countries that had access to fire fuel. Technology would eventually relegate the denser rustic loaves made with barley, rye and whole wheat flours to country fare. Once it became possible to refine grains, white flour became king among the more affluent city dwellers. When Louis IX saw wheat be-coming scarce, he encouraged his countrymen to substitute potatoes for bread. Given that the aristocracy still had access to flour, the suggestion added fire to a revolution. The lesson: deny bread to the masses and you may lose your head.

The artisan breads we enjoy here are primarily based on French and Italian recipes and processes and are identified by their crusty exteriors. The quality of the ingredients and a loving attention to detail is what makes them distinctive. "Using nothing more than flour, water, salt and yeast, you could bake a loaf of bread in as little as three hours—or you could take 24 hours." says Narsai David. "The one that takes 24 hours has developed a much more sophisticated flavor. Take two to three hours and the bread tastes like flour and water."

What we think of as French bread, those long, thick sour-dough loaves and thin baguettes, often contain harder and more refined flour than the rounder, rustic loaves. Borrowing a Viennese technique, the unbaked loaves are subjected to a quick blast of steam during the baking process allowing the surface starch to gelatinize and create a shiny surface. The round or oblong rustic breads, including the batards and pains au levain, are made with whole-grain flours like barley, rye and whole wheat and have thicker crusts and moister interiors.

Those decorative crosscut slashes, called "scoring," on the surface of the loaves enable steam to escape from the inside, allow the bread to continue expanding while controlling where it splits and create a secondary crust. The scoring also provides the baker's personal signature. In a basket in Steve Sullivan's office sits a sample round pain au levain bread scored with a peace sign.

The Business of Bread

Tom Frainier and Michael Rose, co-owners of Semifreddi's Bakery in Emeryville

Tom Frainier and Michael Rose, co-owners of Semifreddi's Bakery in Emeryville

In the 1980s you could see Steve Sullivan unloading large paddles of bread out of the ovens every morning at Acme's San Pablo bakery and storefront. With growth, the original workforce has become management and early-morning baking schedules have morphed into multiple, overlapping shifts around the clock. Some of the bread companies have grown so rapidly that they have become targets for takeover by larger corporations. So far, only Grace Baking has been sold, and only after original owners Glenn and Cindy Mitchel spent a year searching for a head baker who met their exacting standards. Tom Frainier, who happily left the rat race of corporate America to come to Semifreddi's, has a simple reply when asked about his own exit strategy: "Death," he deadpans.

Mechanization and high-tech equipment have made some of the labor-intensive activities more manageable. Until three years ago, Semifreddi's flour arrived in 50-pound sacks. Today, at their 20,000-square-foot Emeryville facility, 55,000 pound! of flour is delivered every three days into giant holding bins. Precisely measured amounts are transferred into large stainless-steel mixing vats where a baker adds water and yeast. A large sign near the vat reads, "Taste the dough."

"That's to make sure he remembers to add salt," says co-owner Michael Rose. Although salt is not an absolute requirement, it controls rising and keeps the dough from collapsing. It also absorbs water and acts as a brake on the yeast to help the crust set. The baker then rolls the dough out onto a board, dividing and weighing it before it goes into individual tubs. The tubs are taken to a room-sized temperature- and humidity-controlled proof box for rising. Like most of the bakeries, Semifreddi's uses 12th century-style French and Italian hearth ovens or deck ovens that provide adjustable heat at each level.

Many of the bakeries have distinguished themselves with exceptional or innovative products. Narsai David cites a few notables: Acme's pain au levain, Semifreddi's seeded baguette, Metroplis's rye and Grace's pugliese.

To survive and grow, the companies have targeted different markets. Acme began by serving restaurants and eventually expanded to include local specialty stores that weren't satisfied with the standard wholesale, industrial fare. And eight years ago, well before the ubiquitous demand for organic, Acme spent two years doing technical research before making the switch to organic flour. Semifreddi's delivers to large and small chains, has expanded their pastry offerings and opened three very popular local retail storefronts. Metropolis works largely with the food-service industry (hotels and corporate kitchens such as Google and Skywalker Ranch) and Grace, which was recently bought by a Canadian firm, distributes to larger franchises such as Safeway and Costco.

The artisan bread business is a backbreaking labor of love, but for the founders of these companies it seems to be more love than labor. As Metropolis's Perry Dexter, who grew up near the wheat fields of Kansas, put it, "Baking is right livelihood."

More than a Dozen Bakers


Andrea Pflaumer is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley. Her grandfather could bake a six-braid challah.

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