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