November 21st, 2015
Wild Flour Bread is located on Bohemian Way in Freestone at a crossroads in the heart of the Russian River Valley, in West Sonoma County, between Sebastopol and Bodega Bay. Bohemian Way is a two-lane stretch of road that passes through gently rolling hills, vineyards, apple orchards and organic farms. Blink and you may pass right through Freestone without knowing it. The hamlet is about half a mile long with a few homes dotted into the pastoral landscape. Defying the principal of “location location, location” this bakery sets its own rules and is open only Friday to Monday each week. Arriving on any of these four days, you may wonder what event is being held in the neighborhood because cars are parked “everywhere” and there is usually a line of customers out the door.
Jed Wallach who founded Wild Flour Bread, was a trained stain glass artist and had also worked in construction during the “down times”. He did not graduate from any Culinary Academy and or have prior experience in the Food Industry, but learned to bake bread in a wood-fired oven in his yard, relying on his own creativity and resourcefulness and some inspiration from the late Alan Scott, the person responsible for the resurgence of Wood Fired Brick Ovens in California. If Jed produced more bread than he could use, he would give the surplus to friends and neighbors. As he became more proficient and demand for the delicious homemade bread grew through word of mouth, he opened a small roadside stall selling the bread outside his home over weekends. When an empty mill that had closed down in Freestone came onto the market, Jed was able to buy it. The building was an ideal space with high ceilings, large glass windows and a view over the pastoral farms in the surrounding valley. It needed some renovations and with his experience as a contractor, he began converting it to a bakery. This was seventeen years ago and from these small beginnings, Wild Flour Bread was born.
To build the Wood Fired Brick Oven, Jed Wallach enlisted the help of his friend, the late Alan Scott, an Australian living not too far away in Tomales Bay who is still the most influential builder of Wood Fired Brick Ovens in California. A blacksmith by training, he had a skill and understanding in using radiant heat to bake bread and has been credited with building over one hundred of these ovens in California with many still in use. Together with his protege Daniel Wing, they wrote “The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens” a definitive book that is still used today all over the world, by people wanting to know how to build Wood Fired Brick Ovens and needing to learn the craft of bread baking. These ovens are capable of producing some of the best bread, moist inside with a crisp, crusty exterior. The original oven built by Alan Scott inside the kitchen at Wild Flour Bread is still in use baking the entire production of yeast breads, four days a week.
At 8.00 a.m. the swing doors of the bakery open with a selection of bread and by 10.30 a.m. they are in full production. Tables are piled high with loaves of bread, sticky buns, biscotti, and scones.
A blackboard to the one side of the counter serves as a menu for the days selection of bread and scones. Generous samples of the day’s offerings are lined up on the counter and customers are encouraged to taste.
The kitchen is in full view and it has no commercial dough mixers or electric rollers. Everything is organic and made by hand. Part of the fascination of the bakery is being able to watch the “theatre” taking place in the kitchen as ingredients are measured, mixed by hand, formed into loaves, given time to rise, then baked and finally removed from the oven with a huge wooden peel (like a shovel) and loaded onto the rustic tables.
The customers are on sensory overload as they walk into the bakery and see the tables overflowing with an assortment of tempting baked items. The smell of fresh baked bread permeates the air. With the selection of baked goods on display, it can be a problem to decide. Wild Flour sets its own rules: this applies to the four day week and the fact that credit cards are not accepted – all transactions are cash or check. New customers who are unaware of this arrangement, are usually given instant credit and asked to mail a check or drop off payment when they next pass. It has also gone counter to popular culture by not using Social Media, no emails and a phone that is used, but not used very much. Do not expect anyone to call back if you leave a message
A rustic garden behind the store has a sign that reads “Wildflower Gardens”. It is lush with flowers, homegrown organic vegetables, fruits and herbs and these are incorporated into the recipes. The garden plan is informal, with curving paths and tall sunflowers and in between are grapevines, carrots, celery, broccoli, beetroot cauliflower, green onions, berries and a selection of herbs.
Among the followers that Wild Flour Bread has attracted are several cycling and motorcycle groups who use this as a pit stop on their journey, A handmade table and benches outside, between the bakery and the garden, is usually occupied by these groups, loading up on carbs., and enjoying a “delicious” pause during their excursion.
Many of the breads made by the bakers at Wild Flour are original recipes that were tried and tested in the bakery in those early days. They may change with the seasons or a little experimentation but basically have remained the same. The most requested items are a Fougasse bread incorporating cheese, potatoes, and herbs in the dough, the Bohemian, with apricots, oranges and pecans and the Goat Cheese Flatbread. There is a special Rye Bread loaded with rye seeds, unique and different to anything I have tasted anywhere else. Seasonal specialty breads are introduced, such as a Pumpkin Bread and a special Cranberry Rye Bread at Thanksgiving. Another top favorite is the Sticky Buns, enough for four people to share, delicious, warm and comforting as they come out of the oven. Scones are very original in flavor, relying on fresh herbs, vegetables and berries from the garden, according to the season. Altogether about eight to ten different breads are available on any day.
Colin is in charge of the brick wood fired oven orchestrating the loaves as they go in and out of the oven, making sure the yeast breads are baked to perfection. The wood fire is made using eucalyptus wood to build the temperatures to one thousand degrees after which the oven is cooled to about five hundred degrees to bake the bread using the stored, radiant heat. Colin was a restaurant chef. Five years ago he relieved one of the bakers who was on vacation – and he is still there !! There are no hard and fast rules about baking in a wood fired oven and the dough can be fickle – the Oven Master has to recognize the texture of the dough, be aware of the humidity or dryness in the air, as well as correct the oven temperature. Keep in mind this oven has an open door.).
Customer Service is friendly and the staff have been with the bakery “forever” and operate like a well-oiled machine. Three people attend to the customers as they enter plus the bakers in the kitchen. Samantha is the scone baker and also looks after the Wild Flower Garden in her off time. She attended cooking school in Santa Rosa but has baking in her DNA and can remember from when she was a little child hanging out in the family kitchen. She preps the dough for the scones the day before and stores it in the fridge as scones are best made with cold dough.
Wild Flour Bread has been invited to sell their production in many other venues, but in its own inimitable way, with its own rules, they have decided to keep their production local to be sold exclusively in their own bakery. Instead of “location, location, location”, it is “quality, quality, quality”. For this reason, Wild Flour Bread has built up a huge following of loyal customers who will drive from miles around to buy their bread because it is exceptional. If you enjoy unique, delicious, quality bread, in a rustic environment, then head this way for a special experience.