Remember Mark Stambler? The home baker who got busted by the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health in 2011 for selling bread he was baking in his backyard in a wood-fired oven?
The indefatigable advocate who, a year later, was instrumental in getting the California Legislature to adopt the California Homemade Food Act? Well, one of the primary rationales for the Act was that it would give micro-entrepreneurs like him a chance to try out processes and recipes that could pave the way to a stand-alone commercial operation. And that is exactly what happened.
Today Mark Stambler is the proud owner of Pagnol @ 3rd Street Bakery, a lovely little bakery in the equally lovely Baywood Park neighborhood in Los Osos, just south of Morro Bay on California’s Central Coast.
The bakery, formerly known simply as Third Street Bakery, used to belong to the late Richard Webb, a baker in the Viennese tradition. Webb, who baked into his 80’s, used to play the piano and make pizza with the kids. His memory is cherished in the community and honored at Pagnol by pictures from the old days.
Mark and his wife happened upon Third Street Bakery by sheer serendipity six years ago during on one of their frequent road trips through their beloved California. Walking around the Baywood Park neighborhood, they were so taken in by the quiet charm of this little community by the sea that they decided: “This is it.”
Then they saw a sign for the bakery. They walked over. Through the window they could see Richard Webb, baking. They knocked on the door. He let them in. When Mark explained that he was a baker himself, Richard showed him around (not that it took long, the bakery is microscopic.) He was warm and open, wonderfully welcoming. He talked about one day maybe retiring down state and then putting the bakery up for sale. Mark let Richard know that if such time came, he would definitely be interested in making an offer.
As the years passed Richard’s health declined to the point that he only baked twice a month. Last time Mark visited, two and a half years ago, the bakery was open and there was a long line in front. Then one day he received an email letting him know Richard had passed and that the bakery was for sale. The rest is history.
Mark took possession in October 2015 but neither he nor his wife Suzette were quite ready yet to move to Los Osos full-time. However, back in LA Mark’s weekly workload had become too heavy for one baker to manage by himself and he had recruited Mark (Marcus) Marren, a young baker eager to hone his skills by helping him out. They had baked together every weekend for the best part of a year and knew each other well. And as it happens Marcus and his girlfriend Alison Denner were looking for a change of pace. With its gorgeous natural setting, Los Osos seemed to be the perfect candidate for a relocation. After a year of weekend cleaning and renovating, the bakery was declared ready. The young couple moved in at the beginning of August and Pagnol @ 3rd Street opened at the end of the month.
Except for the old Hobart they use for pastry, you won’t find a mixer at Pagnol (I don’t know where they’d put it if they wanted one). All bread doughs are mixed by hand. Mark brings the flour up from LA every Friday (they go through 2,500 lbs of grain and flour every two weeks).
Every Friday, after unloading the car, Mark will bake 40 to 50 loaves. Then he will put them in his car and drive back down to LA on Saturday, leaving at 5 AM to distribute them on time. Altogether he figures he uses 2,500 pounds of flour and grain every six weeks. He purchases as much grain as he can from local farmers, including white Sonora wheat from Larry Kandarian but the truth of the matter is that California doesn’t yet produce enough grain for its bakers. (For more on this subject you may want to read this excellent article by Amy Halloran: How the California Grain Campaign is working to get local whole grain bread to your table.)
Interestingly the bread that Pagnol makes with local Sonora wheat is a best-seller. Which doesn’t surprise me. I got a whiff of the proofed loaves and found the fragrance heavenly. It smelled as sweet as cake. Baked, the taste of the Sonora loaf offers notes of parched grass on a golden hill. I love it when a bread awakens your tastebuds to the landscape.
Pagnol also makes miches…
…pains au levain…
…pains aux olives…
…pains de seigle (rye bread)…
As we were talking, customers kept coming in, some with kids in tow, buying bread, selecting sweet brioches or cookies, filling coffee mugs, smiling and engaging in easy small talk. Except for the row of coffee pots in one corner (and the fact that everybody spoke English,) we could have been in any village bakery in southern France. Although unlike a French bakery, Pagnol sells more pastry (tarts, brioches, croissants) and cookies than bread. I didn’t get to take a picture of the croissants as they were already sold out when I came (Marcus had made only eight that morning.) All pastries contain some whole-grain and all the leavened ones are naturally fermented. Mark is determined not to allow any other leavening agent inside the bakery. Long fermentations are the rule of the game!
Once the shaping was done, Mark and I sat down for a chat at one of the tables outside. He explained that he had found his inspiration in Gérard Rubaud, the Vermont baker whose levain formula (a mix of winter and spring wheats, spelt and rye) he uses to this day. But over the years he has modified Gérard’s method to better fit his own busy schedule. Unlike Gérard for instance, he keeps his starter in the fridge at all times. Here is the method that works for him:
Maintaining the wheat starter
- Mix 300 g all-purpose flour + 100 g whole-grain mix or best quality whole-grain flour as fresh as possible + 1 g of sea salt);
- Take 200 g starter and 220 g distilled water, chop up the starter in the water, plop mush into dry ingredients, mix it by hand into bowl, bring it all together (gradually hydrating all flour). Then put in plastic container with a tightly fitting lid;
- And place in warmest spot in your kitchen for 4-5 hours: the starter will grow to take up most of the container;
- Then put it in the fridge on top shelf in back (at 40°F at most.)
Home bakers can cut the amounts in half. It hurts to have to compost or throw out starter but there is no way around it.
Maintaining the rye starter
- Mix 200 g starter, 200g freshly milled rye flour and 200g distilled water (no salt in the rye starter). The texture should be more like a paste (whereas the wheat starter is like a thick ball);
- Keep an eye on it. It will grow a bit faster than the wheat starter (2 to 3 hours);
- When it is ready, put it in the fridge.
Mark recommends doing this weekly. The most time-consuming part is cleaning the plastic container.
Using the starter
- Use it straight from the fridge for the first build;
- Do it in the afternoon, let it sit in covered bowl in a warm spot;
- After dinner do the second build, then put the levain in warm spot (mid-70’s) overnight;
- In the morning, it is ready to be worked into the dough.
For most doughs, bulk fermentation at room temp lasts about three hours with two folds (one every hour). Pagnol’s most hydrated dough is the miche (83%).
The miche gets special treatment: all of the whole-grain goes into the second build together with enough water to get the right hydration. Then the dough rises overnight in the refrigerator. It is mixed with the levain straight out of the fridge after the addition of more water, the white flour and the salt. It then gets retarded at around 38°F. When ready, it sits at room temp for about three hours and gets shaped last. After shaping, the loaves rise overnight and in the morning, they go straight from the fridge into the oven.
Marc still bakes at home. He recently bought himself an used O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove. It has two ovens (a feature that Mark, ever the baker, describes as “dual baking chambers”.) To maximize this champion oven’s performance, Mark has developed a method which had me scratching my head until I remembered that, in the old days, the broiler was located in a bottom drawer. In other words, don’t try this if you have a modern stove. You would only scorch your bread…
“I got the method from Julia Child’s second volume,” Mark says, “It is a great technique for turning your oven into a baker’s oven (asbestos excepted, of course). For this, you need to line your gas oven with unglazed quarry tiles.”
Reminder: this method only works with an old gas stove or oven. Don’t use it with an electric oven or if your broiler is on top.
When ready to bake:
- Turn on the broiler (again, it only works if you have a stove with a bottom broiler) to heat the oven, thus preventing the thermostat from doing its job and turning off the oven;
- Meanwhile heat up a brick on the cooktop and fill a metal pan with water;
- When the oven is ready (30-40 minutes) and the temperature gauge is all the way to the right, put the pan of cold water on floor of the oven;
- Pull out the shelf out that is lined with quarry tiles;
- Use a small peel to deposit the loaves directly on the hot tiles;
- Push the shelf back in;
- Lift the hot brick off gas burner with a metal spatula;
- Plop it gently into the water (“gently” is the operative word here);
- After 10-15 minutes, open oven and rotate the loaves if necessary;
- The loaves are done when they look like they are. As soon as the color is right, pull them out.
Bread heads will understand and, maybe, with the right equipment, try the method. Others will wonder if there is anything a bread head will not do for good bread…
Mark isn’t ready to retire from his day job yet (he is a grant writer) and as I mentioned before, neither he nor his wife have yet reached the point where they can think of leaving Los Angeles for good. Until they do, Marcus and Alison are holding the fort by themselves. The bakery is open four days a week, Friday through Monday. But as every baker will tell you, there is always something going on. On Tuesdays, Marcus is busy with maintenance, repairs and other projects. On Wednesdays, he does the builds and the milling. On Thursdays, he mixes the doughs. And the cycle begins again.
Alison says that, predictably, moving from Los Angeles to Los Osos (which counts 14,000 inhabitants) has been quite a transition. But they are adjusting. There is so much to do outdoors: kayaking, hiking, camping, bicycling. Nearby San Luis Obispo is easily accessible with a very good theater, lots of concerts, people enjoying events and festivals. And of course, running a village bakery is a unique experience. One many a baker, especially a young one, can only dream of.