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December 14-20, 2005

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Peaceful, Yeasty Feeling: Firing loaves at over 500 degrees is among the secrets of perfect bread.

The Myth of Bread

Brick-oven builder Alan Scott understands the yeasty secrets

By Heather Irwin

Bread is both the simplest and most agonizingly difficult thing to bake. Composed of nothing more than flour, water, a little salt, some yeast and a great deal of patience, it is the most basic of foodstuffs, eaten in one form or another for millennia. Grinding up grains, adding water and then letting the whole stinking mess ferment with wild yeasts, our ancestors pretty regularly turned out nice, crunchy loaves for the tribe with little more than a fire, some mud bricks and their wits.

But the perfect loaf has become something of a Holy Grail for modern bakers. If you've ever tried—and I can guarantee that you failed at least 10 times before you even got something edible—to make real bread, you can understand the mysterious conundrum. Because no matter how many pounds of Guisto's flour or live cakes of yeast you bought, no matter how many hours you pretended to wait for the damn thing to rise and no matter how many $40 French loaf pans you bought at the kitchen store, you can't do it. You just can't. Sure, you may convince yourself that you're close after a week of fermenting your own sourdough. But honestly, the paper-thin crust and thumb-tip sized bubbles will always elude you, taunt and eventually haunt you. The quest for true bread is the stuff of madness.

But why? Here's the truth: Bread hates technology. It doesn't care if you've got a $5,000 state-of-the-art oven with super-convection features and a degree from the Cordon Bleu. In fact, it might even think less of you. Bread wants to be simple, wild and natural. It wants absolutely nothing to do with our modern life and is willing to stand (or at least bubble happily) on its convictions.

So in the end, we give up and buy the light, airy, fluffy unattainable loaves from places like Wild Flour Bakery, Bennett Valley Bread or the Brick Maiden where laid-back guys with beards, Birkenstocks and those odd-looking brick ovens console us with perfectly formed batard and boule. They know the secret.

And now, so do you: Salvation comes in the form of those rather ancient-looking brick ovens that sit quietly in the back of the bakery disturbing no one and patiently cooking loaf after perfect loaf, as a fire gently burns below.

The man behind these ovens, Alan Scott, is the man behind the secret, and he's sharing it all over the North Bay and beyond. Scott, who splits his time between Petaluma and Australia, is the founder of OvenCrafters (5600 Marshall-Petaluma Road, Petaluma, 415.663.9010), a specialized masonry oven building company that has created many of the best ovens in Northern California—and throughout the rest of the country.

The California Department of Parks has one of Scott's brick ovens, as does bread baker and vintner Lou Preston. Sebastopol's Summerfield Waldorf School has one, and the Lucas Ranch has another (George knows the secret!), as do the Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito and the Hess winery in Napa. In fact, pretty much every true bread affectionado who can afford one (they run into the thousands of dollars to build, depending on size) has commissioned Scott to either build one for them or give them plans on how to build their own. They're just that good.

With their simple brick construction, these ovens may seem like a throwback to the Middle Ages, but they're not. Scott, who is part metaphysicist and dots his teachings with the philosophies of Gandhi and contemporary spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, also happens to be a blacksmith who well understands the conductive properties of heat. Using what he calls his "x-ray vision about heating mass," Scott came up with his own idiosyncratic method of building ovens in a way that is hotter and more fuel efficient than almost any other method of baking—including regular commercial ovens.

For example, Scott's design of a brick bread-baking oven allows for the oven to be fired only once (meaning lighting the wood beneath the oven), but then used over the next 16 hours to bake 25 batches of bread at extremely high heat. According to Scott, traditional ovens can only bake two to three batches per day, and use more fuel.

Scott's ovens bake at extremely high heat—much hotter than the average 500 or so degrees of a regular oven (most home ovens don't get much hotter than 450 degrees). This allows the bread to stay moist and steam itself from the inside out, creating a luxuriously bubbly, rich crumb inside. Outside, the crust is paper thin, but crunchy. Though the outside color becomes almost black, the bread never scorches, but instead the natural sugars in the bread caramelize, creating the deep chocolate color. The radiant heat of the ovens makes for an environment that all but coaxes every last morsel of yeast and flour to cling together in an entirely perfect loaf.

For most of us, resigning ourselves to weekly sojourns to Della Fattoria or any of the bakeries and restaurants throughout the North Bay (see sidebar) that have Scott's masonry ovens might have to be enough. Then again, bread baking can be an insidious obsession that crawls into your psyche and won't let go until you finally birth that perfect loaf—not that I'd know, of course.

For the only slightly, ah, touched, Scott published a book with his student and protÈgÈ Daniel Wing in 1999 called The Bread Builders. It's an exhaustive tome on the history of bread baking, making your own starter, the proper amount of time to let bread rise, the physics of bread, and some hundred pages later, how to actually build your own masonry oven. With diagrams and step-by-step drawings, it's the sort of do-it-yourself project that bored physicists, engineers and neurosurgeons might be able to figure out in their spare time.

Scott warns, however, that this is no job for professionals. "I find that it is best if amateurs do their own building, rather than giving the project over to a mason. Masons just cannot change gears to follow the nontraditional parts of my design and end up building a much -improved' oven that actually in some cases will not work." He cites one in Fort Ross that no one can get to work after professional masons built the oven. "It won't fall down, though!" he adds.

For non-do-it-yourselfers, Scott also builds about a dozen new ovens each year around the North Bay, and is just as happy to build one for private residences (he's currently working on one in Glen Ellen) as for commercial bakeries. You'll have to get on a waiting list, though. Currently Scott has several projects in the works. Throughout the year, he also runs several building and baking workshops around the country and in Australia to teach and apprentice a new generation of masonry-devoted bread bakers.

Buying Brick Baked

These North Bay establishments use Alan Scott's special brick ovens:

Bennett Valley Bakery & Pastry Available at fine markets; 707.575.9345

Brick Maiden 40 B St., Pt. Reyes Station; 415.663.1203

Della Fattoria 141 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma; 707.763.0161

Gold Coast Coffee and Brick Oven Bakery Steelhead Boulevard (in the Cape Fear shopping area), Duncans Mills; 707.865.1441

Good Earth Natural Foods 1966 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Fairfax; 415.454.4633

Grindstone Bakery 300 S. A St., Santa Rosa; 707.284.2016

Lucy's Cafe 6948 Sebastopol Road, Sebastopol; 707.829.9713

Pizzeria Tra Vigne 1016 Main St., St. Helena; 707.967.9999

Preston Vineyards 9282 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg; 800.305.9707

Small Shed Flatbreads 17 Madrona St., Mill Valley; 415.383.4200

Wild Flour Bakery 140 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone; 707.874.2938

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