It was still dark out when we arrived at Miller’s Bake House in Yankee Hill near Chico, California. Behind a fence a startled lama and a family of curious goats stared, eyes gleaming in the glare of the headlights. As soon as the engine was off, a moon crescent appeared, thin and sharp between two pine trees. Beyond, the hills were that pale shade of black that says the sun is about to rise. It was 7. The house looked asleep but towards the end of the long porch, a light shone, bright and warm.
We walked towards it and knocked on the door. Dave was expecting us. He was shaping as we walked in, just as he had said he would be. On Fridays, he gets up at 3 AM, gets the fire going in his wood-fired oven, starts dividing the doughs he has mixed the day before, then shapes the four hundred loaves he will take with him the next day to the Chico’s Farmers Market. Four hundred loaves, eleven or twelve different breads, seven doughs. “Too much,” he says, “I am never looking to add variety but rather to improve what I am doing. I’d only add a bread when one of the farmers starts growing an interesting variety of wheat but then I take something away. Baking can always get better. I am never a hundred percent satisfied with the way the bread turns out.”
I perch on a high wooden stool by the door, pen poised, ready to take notes but Dave’s hands are doing a dance on the bench and I stare, fascinated: he seizes a chunk of dough from the dozens that await on wooden boards, spreads it on the table, taps it gently with flat-out fingers, then rolls it fast and pats it down some more. By now, the dough is a fat cylinder which he pulls, pushes, pulls again, pushes anew and finally seals, before dipping it in a bowl of flour and dropping it into a basket. We stop talking as he slows down to demo the moves for the video. The clip is short, barely over a minute, and my favorite part is towards the end when perfect boules waltz out from under his fingers…
When all the waiting baskets are all full, he carries the tray to the back of the bakery and tackles the next batch of fermented dough.
Working at his normal pace again, Dave tells me how he came to baking as a college kid on a semester abroad, how he apprenticed himself to a whole grain baker after graduation, how he traveled through Europe for a year, learning from the masters, how he came home and got married, opened his own bakery in Southern California and later moved to Chico.
Hands folding, patting, rolling, he explains how he ended up making so much bread he once emperilled his health before understanding that for him, bread couldn’t be about production and that being a good baker mattered more than being a good manager.
Every so often, he leaves the bench, opens a small cast iron door on the side on the oven and pushes in a log. Sparks leap up, his face and hands glow. Behind him, the moon is gone. A young sun washes down the hills, reaches inside the bakery and gently palpates the dough.
Dave didn’t start out as a baker. He was majoring in business and economics at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, when he went on that life-changing semester in Scotland. Amazing how little things sometimes derail the best laid plans and then we realize those plans weren’t the best after all… In Edinburgh, his dorm was a twenty-minutes walk from his classrooms and every day as he walked through town, he passed a cute little bakery whose owner gave him free treats to try. The atmosphere of that bakery made an impression on him at a time when all he knew about his future was that he didn’t want to spend it behind a desk or, one day, have a midlife crisis.
Back at school in St-Paul, he decided to give baking a shot. Through a friend who worked at the registrar’s office, he got the birth dates of out-of-state students and took to writing to their parents two weeks before their birthdays, offering to bake, inscribe and deliver a fresh cake to their child on his or her actual birthday. Those were the days before the internet and online shopping. Delighted parents jumped at the opportunity. Orders poured in and Dave’s birthday cake delivery service was born. He bought yellow, white and chocolate mixes at the supermarket and started making cakes in his dorm kitchen. The baking went fine but the frosting turned out to be unexpectedly challenging. He switched to ordering the cakes from across the street (basically outsourcing production long before the word and practice became mainstream). Business flourished.
The following semester Dave interned at at bakery in Minneapolis, doing market research and new product development. After graduation, the boss hired him as a baker. The bakery was a big production place. He learned to be very efficient with his movements and his time. After eighteen months, he decided it was time to go learn something new, preferably in the Northeast.
The day before he was to leave, he saw in a bookstore a sign advertising the opening of a new sourdough bakery in St-Paul. He went and checked it out. The bakery looked a bit rough. There were dark dense loaves on a small rack. He bought one – only so that the person at the counter wouldn’t feel bad, took it home, cut a slice, bit into it and had a whole body reaction, an experience unlike any he had ever had before: the only way he can describe it is that while his mouth was tasting flavor, his body was recognizing nutrition. He knew right away that such a loaf was “the ultimate bread, one which gives you the wonderful, satisfied, nourished feeling that what you are eating is right.” He returned to the bakery immediately to talk to the baker. The man asked Dave if he was familiar with organic, sourdough, macrobiotics, etc. (he wasn’t), told him he milled his own flour and talked at length about his teacher, Richard Bourdon of Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, Massachusetts. Dave asked for Richard’s phone number but when he called to ask if he could come and talk to him, Richard wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. Dave let three months go by before trying again and this time went there in person. By an extraordinary strike of good luck, Richard was then looking for an apprentice. He was hired on the spot.
Richard used fresh flour which he milled himself, made a lot of fifty percent whole grain/fifty percent white flour breads and kept a sourdough culture. His bread was incredible. To this day, he remains a major influence in Dave’s baking. He apprenticed with him for eight months, then moved on to learn from other bakers, notably Chuck Conway of O Bread in Shelburne, Vermont, all the while studying French in preparation for an extended stay in Europe. The year was 1987.
In France, Dave worked for Patrick Le Port at La Boulangerie savoyarde where he recalls making lots of two-kilo loaves of traditional country bread with high-extraction flour and a 95% hydration rate. Again the experience was an eye-opener: whereas, back in Massachusetts, Richard had used as little levain as possible in his dough (his starter was quite stiff and highly acidic), Patrick kept a very mild starter and used a very high percentage of it. Both made excellent bread. More food for thought…
When he headed back home a year later after a stint in Luxembourg and in Belgium (he worked for a while in a biodynamic bakery in Antwerp but what he mostly remembers about the months there was riding his bike everywhere and tasting great beer), he was hired to manage the bakery at a biodynamic farm in Wisconsin : the idea was to grow wheat and rye and sell it as bread instead of grain, making more money in the process. He did that for two years, then felt it was time to be his own boss. The farm’s owners had sent some of his loaves to the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, California. The bread had gotten rave reviews, which got Dave thinking that Southern California might be ready for his kind of baking. Just then a fully equipped bakery came up for rent in Escondido, near San Diego. It was a perfect opportunity to go and set up shop. Dave moved to Escondido in 1992.
Three years later, a bakery was put up for sale in downtown Chico. The owner had been a pioneer in wholegrain sourdoughs. When Dave found out about him, he had already passed away but all the equipment was there and there was an established clientèle. He bought the business and ran it for three years. The first year was a year of incredible growth in sales volume because he continued to sell bread in Southern California through distributors. But it became less and less fun. It got to the point where a decision had to be made: become a good manager or remain a good baker. Dave had never pictured his ideal bakery as a big one. Selling the business in Chico, he moved his baking to Yankee Hill and concentrated on local accounts which he gradually whittled down to only the farmers’ market.
One piece of equipment he took with him to Yankee Hill was his Autoflex mixer. Made in Switzerland more than sixty years ago, it is still going strong. “It only has the one slow speed and I love it.” I didn’t see it working since all the doughs had been mixed before I arrived. But Dave explained that he usually mixes for fifteen to twenty minutes.
He puts ninety percent of the total formula water in the autolyse and has rigged up a contraption which dribbles the rest of the water during the mixing to prevent the dough from sticking to the sides. The hydration varies a bit according to the weather but stays pretty much the same with each batch of grain. He autolyses all his doughs for twenty minutes, except for the first one he mixes on Thursday mornings upon arriving at the bakery – the fifty-percent white flour Sacramento River Sourdough – which he keeps autolyse-ing (if there is such a word) for ninety minutes. Once mixed, every dough but the rye gets retarded for 15 to 20 hours at 47° F. He uses 12% starter in all whole-wheat breads, 15% in the kamut ones, 20% in the Sac River sourdough and 35% in the rye bread. The last build for the kamut dough is a kamut levain but he starts with wheat.
When he’s done shaping all the doughs but the rye, Dave takes me to the milling room he built at the back of the bakery.
Except for his white flour (which he uses as bench flour and as an ingredient in his Sacramento River Sourdough, the only one of his breads which isn’t a hundred percent wholegrain), Dave mills all his flours himself on Thursdays just before mixing time: from the way he describes it, I gather he pretty much spends the whole day milling and mixing, starting with the kamut he uses to make the wholegrain pasta he also sells at the farmers’ market. He doesn’t add any water to the grain prior to milling and never sifts out anything. He doesn’t age his flour either.
Strong flours need a lot of water and Dave’s doughs are typically very wet. The wettest one – the wheat-rye dough he uses for the California Sun and the Foothill Round – is at 110% hydration (around 108% when you take the stiff starter into account). High-hydration doughs are easier to handle if they have been retarded (retarding seems to make the gluten more elastic instead of extensible). Dave was once told that it wasn’t possible to retard whole grain dough because there would be too much activity. But he found out it wasn’t true. And bulk retarding is actually what enables him to bake that amount of bread by himself. It has little effect on flavor, makes the dough easier to work with and doesn’t add acidity. Dave uses no flour or water when pre-shaping. Just a quick rounding with scraper and hand. All pre-shaping having been done prior to my arrival, I didn’t get to watch him do it.
Dave owned an Alan Scott brick oven for twelve years. It was challenging but he made a lot of bread with it. He now has an Italian wood-fired steam deck oven, a Bassanina. “A small firebox underneath the oven heats a meandering, masonry heat chamber which, in turn, heats a series of closed-loop steel tubes that are half full of water. When these tubes are heated, the water turns to steam and the steam carries the heat (inside this network of tubes) throughout the oven, providing a wonderful, even heat for the baking of bread.” My pen couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the technical details as Dave explained the functioning of his oven, so the above quotation was copied and pasted from his website (which I strongly encourage you to visit.)
The main reason he switched ovens is that he bakes only one batch a week. “The Alan Scott ovens are more efficiently used when you bake a lot. Otherwise they become quite wasteful. The Bassanina can fire up in six hours or so and offers much better control over the temperature because it can be stoked throughout the bake.” Dave can bake ninety-six one-pound-and-a-half loaves together comfortably but the bread bakes better if he puts in eighty or less. “Ovens aren’t typically designed for whole grain breads. They don’t provide enough bottom heat, which means I need to shuffle them around as they bake. I stoke the oven every half-an-hour prior to the first loading, afterwards, on an as-needed basis.”
Two blue jays break into a loud chatter on a limb by the porch. Dave gazes at them but he seems to be looking far beyond: “I knew Alan Scott. He was from Australia. He came to the farm in Wisconsin and built two ovens for us. He was not only an oven-builder but also a baker, never became a citizen in this country, always lived under the radar, taking care of an old Victorian house in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Young people kept flocking to his house wanting to learn and bake. He was inspiring in the way he shaped his life around bread…” Flashes of blue at the window. The chatter fades away. The birds are taking their conversation to another tree and Dave starts dusting the top of the proofed loaves.
Today Dave keeps two starters, one rye, one wheat, both wholegrain. I ask if I can see them. But as it turns out, neither is ready for social calls. The rye starter has been shrunk to a two-ounce mother and is recuperating in the fridge. The wheat one (65% hydration) is reduced to crumbs. I must have looked startled because Dave elaborates readily: he always dries it out his wheat starter after his weekly bake to make it go dormant. He says it is the only way he has ever found to make a starter work for him in a consistent manner. Every time he tried to build ‘normal’ starters with ‘normal’ enrichment schedules, such as one or two feedings a day, his starters start to degrade. So he learned to live with the one he has and now he loves it; “In many ways it is a very nice starter.”
Every week after he is done mixing, Dave takes two hundred grams of ripe starter, doubles its weight in flour and works it until it has the consistency of bread crumbs. Then he lets it sit in the walk-in cooler for six days. The following week when he needs the starter again, he sifts out the flour from the little clumps of sourdough, adds enough water to the chunks of starter to make them mushy (which takes one hour), then adds back the flour he has just sifted. That constitutes the first feed. He then lets the starter ferment overnight for ten to twelve hours at room temperature (which usually means the high 70s), feeds it again and lets it ferment four and a half hours and feeds it again. This time the fermentation is really quick (only three hours). The last build is pretty mild. Dave wants the taste of the grain to shine through, so he shoots for a very mild fermentation flavor. Up to this point, he has had access to excellent farms. He tests the flour before buying the grain. If it is good, he buys a year’s worth of it. But buying yearly will soon be a thing of the past. Less and less farmers seem interested in selling to small bakers.
The sun is now high in the sky, Dave has been at work since 3 AM which is when he got the fire going and started dividing. He won’t be done before 7 PM and tomorrow, he’ll be up again at 4:15 AM to be at the market by 5:45. Time for us to go! Dave slips four loaves in paper bags and gives them to me. I am awed. They are barely out of the oven and their fragrance is heady.
His own favorite is the one-hundred percent whole-grain kamut above. Since he gave me one to take home, I was lucky enough to actually taste it. It had such a deeply aromatic honey flavor that I thought I had misunderstood and it contained both spelt and kamut. I checked with Dave and he confirmed that the only ingredients were organic whole kamut flour, water, sourdough culture and sea salt.
The second one was the Foothill Round. Made of organic whole wheat flour, organic whole rye flour, sourdough culture, and sea salt, it is a bread for connoisseurs, rich and wheaty but still light.
The Valley Wheat is made of one hundred percent Sonora wheat, sourdough culture, water and sea salt. Milder in taste than the Foodhill Round, it is probably an excellent choice for those of Dave’s customers who are transitioning to a hundred percent whole-wheat. Of the four we took home however, my personal favorite, besides the kamut, was this one:
Made with one hundred percent whole Sonora wheat with figs, fennel and walnuts, the flavor of the Mission Loaf reminded me of the scent of the breeze in the California hills. It was like eating sunshine spiced with wild fennel. Pure Golden State magic!
But then I suspect I would savor all and any of Dave’s breads. I don’t know about you but I first eat with my eyes and his bread is gorgeous. Then when you bite into it, images of the Earth and the Sun and of fields of grains undulating in the wind spring to mouth and mind and you are hooked.
The hills weren’t always gold and green around Dave’s house though. In fact when he and his wife moved in, they were entirely black as a result of a huge wildfire. He spent a large chunk of his time clearing out the charcoaled trees (which he used to bake bread) and to this day, he does his best to keep the underbrush under control, hence the lamas and the goats who feast on what he cuts down and brings to them. Today he buys his firewood (native almond wood is his favorite) instead of going out with a chainsaw before each bake. But between the hills, the house and the bakery, the millstones to dress and the never-ending quest for local grain, especially in a severe drought, I suspect Dave’s days are seldom idle. Such is the life he chose, his life in bread, and as he says, “there is something rich in doing a craft for a long time. You don’t have to retire as you grow older, just to slow down.”