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Our Daily Bread

Santa Rosa's Grindstone Bakery bakes naturally leavened, wheat-free loaves of note

By Sara Bir

Grindstone Bakery is missing the storefront, the cappuccino machine noisily frothing away, and the forgettable jazz pumping out over the sound system. There is no retail space at all. What it does have is brick ovens, lots of dough, and Tauna Ruiz.

The bakery itself is small, perhaps only a little larger than a two-bedroom apartment. It sits away from the street, behind a vintage clothing shop on south A Street in a space that, from the outside, gives no indications of housing a bakery. But that Grindstone Bakery look like a bakery was probably of not much concern to Ruiz when she first began the business in 1999.

The prep area is particularly intimate, especially the multiple speed racks and proofing boxes that populate the space. Schedules and dough formulas are posted on the wall. Huge plastic buckets--where the doughs are both kneaded and stored--sit under the prep table, their contents alive and spongy.

"Everything we make uses starters," says Ruiz. "We don't have commercial yeast in the doughs, and we grind all of our own flour. The flour is a lot more nutritious that way. Oxygen and light really deplete the nutrients that are in the grains. And I tend to be the kind of person [who likes] doing things from scratch."

That Grindstone's breads don't include wheat flours is not so much out of a spite for wheat as it is due to Ruiz's love of other grains. "I don't have any wheat allergies or anything. Part of it was experimentation. . . . They all have really neat flavors, and they all act way different. And there's so much fresh bread around here, I think it would be harder to compete just doing a French style of bread. Especially doing it this way, because there's bigger companies out there who can do it a whole lot cheaper and a lot faster."

Grindstone mills grains, including spelt, kamut, and barley, twice a week. There's no eponymous grindstone, however; Ruiz has a midsize commercial grain mill in the back.

Mornings begin around 4am, with lighting a fire in the oven, mixing the doughs, and shaping and baking pitas while the oven is very hot and the temperature is still evening out.

Before opening the bakery, Ruiz apprenticed with Alan Scott, one of the most influential masonry oven builders in the country and co-author of The Bread Builders. Scott, who lives in Marshall, has left a trail of masonry ovens all over northern California--West Pole Bakery in Occidental, Della Fattoria in Petaluma, Lucy's Cafe in Sebastopol, and the Marin Headlands Institute are just a handful of examples.

"I've always done alternative types of baking, mainly pastry," says Ruiz, who graduated from University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in environmental conservation, though the lure of the kitchen prompted her to pursue a different path. "I always wanted to get into bread. I contacted Alan Scott and started going up to Marshall once a week to bake with him. It got to the point where I wanted to go ahead and do it full-scale, and that's how I got this place going."

Ruiz's interest was first in vegetarian and vegan cooking. "That's how I got into doing pastries. I worked at Millennium down in the city for a while as a pastry chef. I enjoy the experimentation of working with different materials, and that's why I like working with the different grains. It's fun to experiment and see how they perform."

Ruiz' speech is paced and thoughtful, though perhaps that's because in between fielding questions, she and Grindstone employee Julie Hutchinson are intermittently counting out bread pans, shaping loaves, and washing out containers. Mostly, Ruiz and Hutchinson are working their way through a mound of sticky, almost purplish dough that reaches like an amoeba over the prep table.

Shaping rye loaves with a briskness that's efficient but careful, they lop off a portion of dough, weigh it, hurriedly work its rough edges into a smoothed, rounded mass, and then fold over the edges to form a squared-off cylinder that they place in cast-iron pans to proof.

"Most of the people that I've hired haven't done [baking] before," says Ruiz. "I have my own way of doing stuff, and I think it's a lot different than most bakeries. I don't want somebody coming in here who's used to a bunch of machines. . . . I don't think they'd be very happy--working the oven, the timing of it, the quantity that we do."

Currently, Grindstone breads can be found at Community Market in Santa Rosa; all of the Whole Foods stores between here and San Francisco; Good Earth in Fairfax; and Rainbow Grocery, Harvest Market, and Real Foods in San Francisco. Grindstone's output is not especially large: 300 loaves on this day, plus the pitas. But expanding the bakery is not a priority for Ruiz, who wants to leave ample room for the other facets of her life.

"I have a two-year-old son at home, so I like to keep the work load manageable, have a balance. He actually lived in the bakery here for the first year," Ruiz says, pointing behind her. Her son now stays at home with her husband, who's a painter. "So I'm not interested in taking on more accounts. When I started this, I wanted my weekends, and I wanted my nights. And I get up early on some mornings, 5 or 3, but it's not so bad.

Ruiz started out the first year on her own and, she says, "I intended to stay that way." But the arrival of her son, Ronin, prompted her to hire her first employee. There are now two employees in addition to Ruiz who work in the bakery, as well as someone who does delivery.

Grindstone Bakery makes seven kinds of bread--kamut, sprouted seed spelt, spelt, multigrain spelt, oat barley, rye with caraway, and cinnamon raisin swirl--as well as kamut pita bread, and four types of wheat and dairy-free (and very good) cookies.

One of Grindstone's breads--100 percent rye bread--is especially uncommon in bakeries. "Rye is really odd, and it's been a real challenge to figure out how to work with it," Ruiz says. "I was having problems until a couple months ago; it was sporadic. I asked other bakers who had baked with rye, and they had never had the problems I was having. They'd say, 'You can't bake with just rye, you have to add wheat or it doesn't work right.' But that's not true, because I've done it."

They also offer seasonal rotating loaves. Currently, the rotating loaf is fig-nut. The seasonal loaves allow Ruiz to play around a bit, one of the aspects of baking that originally drew her in. "When I was working at Millennium, I'd get off work and I'd come home and experiment with all kinds of baking stuff. Now I just don't have time. I kind of miss it."

Life with a wood-fired oven does have its advantages, though, and it's not just superior crusts. "When they were having the rolling blackouts, we were baking pitas in the oven and all of a sudden the lights went out. Everyone else had to go home because their computers were shutting down, lights were off, they couldn't ring up customers."

There's a conspicuous absence in the bakery--no Hobart or other massive industrial mixer. All of the doughs at Grindstone are kneaded by hand. "I think it's really important to know how things feel. I think you lose something when you throw everything in a mixer and turn the thing on," says Ruiz. "It could probably save a little bit of time and be more efficient, but I just enjoy the process. I like using my hands."

Shawn Dalberde, who's worked at Grindstone for just over a month, says that the hands-on approach is one of the things that attracted him to the job. "It seemed like a simple and nice thing to do for myself and to do for the world. And I like the way they do things here--mixing it by hand. It's easier to have a machine do it, but we're putting our life into it, our energy--which is not happening in very many places in the world."

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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