From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

BAKER AIMS TO FEED THE HEART, SOUL AT WILD FLOUR

Published on March 31, 1999

© 1999- The Press Democrat

BYLINE:    Miriam Silver
Staff Writer

PAGE: D1

Jed Wallach's work day at his Wild Flour Bread bakery begins the day before.

At 2 p.m., he starts feeding his 6-by-10-foot brick oven with logs of dried eucalyptus. In the next eight hours, he will feed the fire, and hand mill fresh spelt, rye and red wheat until it becomes a silky powder. He and two other bakers -- his 17-year-old daughter, Mia, and her friend Michele Guinn, 20 -- will work 300 pounds of dough by hand and place it in plastic buckets.

A passer-by at 10 o'clock at night looking through the huge farmhouse-size windows of the bakery will see red flames shooting high inside the brick oven. By 5 the next morning, the logs will have burned down to a gray ash, which Wallach will mop out.

He and the other bakers will shape the bread and place it in willow baskets lined with white Belgian linen. By 7, the oven should have cooled to 600 degrees and the bread will have risen.

With double-edged Gillette razor blades, Wallach will score the yeasty loaves. With an almost audible sigh, they will breathe with each slice, and he will quickly dump the loaves on a 10-foot-long wooden pallet to slide inside the oven. He will spray a little water onto the hot oven bricks to create the steam that helps form a perfect crust on each loaf.

The sticky buns and cheese fougasse should be ready for his first customers when he opens at 8:30 a.m.

"The bread doesn't wait. It's morning. It's growing. You have to move fast," Wallach said.

Since November, Wallach has been baking bread in a building that was a former feed mill at the top of the scenic Bohemian Highway. Locals have quickly made Wild Flour a gathering spot every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, lining up early for the chunky sticky buns, mitt-shaped fougasses, and crusty loaves of French bread that often sell out by noon.

Wallach, 46, who quit a successful specialty glass business in Santa Rosa three years ago, has become the trusted baker of this West County hamlet. He had no particular background in cooking or baking yet has managed to build himself a living, breathing dream.

"I was just an anonymous person who produced a product (in the glass business)," Wallach said. "Here, people know me. It's ridiculous, but I get to hold every baby who comes in. I am safe. I am the baker."

Customers thank him. They are sad when they are too late for the spelt loaf and vow to return earlier the next day. "I have been thanked so many times," he said. "I don't know what I expected. I just knew I would be happy here."

Wallach grew up in San Francisco. He and his former wife studied at Chartres cathedral in France. In the '70s they opened a stained glass company in Berkeley, then moved Wallach Glass Studio to Santa Rosa 15 years ago. They have four children.

But three years ago, they split up and Wallach sold his share of a business in which he was no longer happy.

"I had no idea what I was doing. I was terrified the money would run out. I have four kids to support," he said.

Wallach and a friend, Tissa Stein, talked about baking bread. She had a horse ranch in the rural Two Rock area of Petaluma, where she let Wallach try his hand at breadmaking.

But the cooking part was not all he concentrated on. Wallach worked as a house framer so he could figure out how to actually build the bakery. Then he hired Alan Scott, a West Marin man known for his brick ovens, to build one for them at Stein's ranch.

Wallach spent some time with a baker in Point Reyes, then for the next two years experimented with bread, selling it from the ranch to a small following of fans in the area.

When Wallach was ready to open a commercial bakery, he searched all over the western part of Sonoma County until he found the spot. "There's very few places as beautiful as Freestone Valley," he said. "You come down that hill and it's spectacular."

In a feed barn that had been vacant for two years, Wallach tore off Sheetrock, exposed old wooden beams, used recycled wood for the window and door frames. A stained-glass window he made is in the bathroom. The interior is like a wide open stage, where customers and their children are welcome to come and view the milling, mixing, rising and baking.

"I made the building and location what my dream would be like," Wallach said.

Stacks of plump flour sacks line the walls underneath the windows. A blackboard lists the eight specials of the day, which always change except for the Wild Flour French and the signature sticky buns. His 12-year-old daughter, Sonia, or son Ben, 10, works a plastic child's cash register. Jazz or rock is on the portable CD player. People sit European style, stranger-to-stranger, on benches and mismatched chairs at the pine farm table.

His 1-kilo olive oil and grilled onion ciabatta loaves lie like beached seals on a rock at sunset. "These are free-form bread. They come out however they come out," Wallach said.

When bread is done, there is no timer that beeps. Wallach pulls away from one task and runs to the oven. "I just feel it," he said.

There are no machines to make the loaves uniform in shape. Wallach and his baking team have chosen not to buy a mixer for the dough.

"We thought about it, and it didn't seem to benefit us," he said. "This is pleasant. It's not grueling. There is pleasure in our work. You feel good about it. You get your hand in it."

Alan Scott built the huge oven that is just about at capacity already, thanks to the ever-expanding crowds Wallach did not expect so soon. But now he thinks he understands why they have all shown up.

"You know that the bread has been worked by a person. There are people's handprints all over the bread," Wallach said. "The color of stained glass feeds the soul, just as bread feeds the soul. We all yearn for something that obviously shows someone put their heart in it."

PHOTO: 1 color 1 b&w by Chris Chung/Press Democrat

1: "There is pleasure in our work. You feel good about it. You get your hand in it," says Jed Wallach, seen here bagging loaves for customers at his Wild Flour Bread in Freestone.

2: Wild Flour Bread baker Michele Guinn places hot bread from a brick oven onto racks to cool.

Keywords: BIOGRAPHY FOOD

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