by Rachel Hommel, a.k.a. Patti the Pickle
Patti the "big dill" Pickle here, sharing tidbits of what you can look forward to at this year's Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival. Recently, I had the opportunity to break bread with Brendan Smith of New Vineland Bread. The company uses wild yeast to culture their sourdough starter - from wine grapes to be exact - and harvests their own heirloom wheat to create a truly local, traditional levain bread.
From the field to your farmers market - yeasty goodness with a crusty twist! Look for their tasty creations at this year's event!
Patti the Pickle: How did you get into traditional sourdough bread baking? Explain the importance of using fermentation in the baking process.
BS: I spent my first four years after college living in Washington, D.C., working as a government contractor. Outside of work I was really into cooking food and eating. One Saturday afternoon I made the simplest bread recipe from Mark Bittman's 'How to Cook Everything' book. My first loaf of bread was far from ideal, but it blew my mind how awesome it could be to make fresh bread at home.
From there I was hooked, and I began buying bread books and learning and baking as much as I could. My science background got me really interested in the chemistry of bread, especially natural fermentation. After a year of baking at home, I got to the point where I was waking up at 2:00 a.m. on weeknights and baking in my apartment until I had to head into the office. I finally left my office job in March 2010 and haven't looked back since.
Patti the Pickle: What makes a good sourdough starter? What is different about baking with a sourdough starter?
BS: Taking care of a starter is like caring for a pet. It needs to be fed regularly and watched over in order to keep it healthy and strong. A sourdough starter is only going to perform well if it is properly cared for. A healthy starter will have vigorous yeast activity, and will not be overly acidic.
Patti the Pickle: What brought you out to California? Give us a brief overview of your impressive culinary career.
BS: I moved out to California to become the baker at New Vineland Bread in January of this year. At the time I first learned about New Vineland, I was serving as the head baker of Roberta's in Brooklyn, New York. I wasn't really looking for a new job, but the sudden prospect of moving out to California and milling locally grown grain in a stone mill and baking in a beautiful wood fired oven in the back of a winery sounded pretty nice. My girlfriend and I were getting a bit burnt out in the city, so two months later we were driving across the country!
Patti the Pickle: Tell us about New Vineland’s sourdough starter - Does your sourdough starter have a name?
BS: Haha, our sourdough starter does not have a name. I've never named a starter I've kept, and I probably never will. There is a lot of lore surrounding the age and providence of sourdough starters. None of that really matters. Bread made with a 200-year-old starter is not necessarily going to make better bread than a starter that is 2 months old. If you don't take care of your starter and it's not happy, it's not going to make good bread.
Patti the Pickle: New Vineland harvests their own wheat. Explain the baking process, from the field to our farmers markets.
BS: We have about 17 acres, a mix of red fife, sonora, and durum, planted out in Ballard Canyon just outside of Buellton. The grain is harvested, cleaned, and bagged in the late summer and then stored at cellar temperature through the year until needed.
My production days always begin with milling in our Austrian stone mill. Once all of the flours have been scaled out, and the starter is ready to go, the doughs are mixed very gently on slow speed in our mixer. We rely on a series of folds over the course of the dough's fermentation period to build up dough strength.
I divide and shape the dough in the late afternoon and then retard the loaves overnight in our cold room, which sits at about 40 degrees. At the same time I've been mixing and shaping dough, I've kept a nice slow fire burning in our oven. Once the fire has finished burning, I shut the fire doors to let the heat in the masonry of the oven even out overnight. When I return to the bakery early the next morning, the oven should be ready to go. I then pull dough as I need from the cold room and load it into the oven. While I'm baking, I start the milling process and repeat.
Your company offers a wide array of tasty, yeasty wonder. What is the top bread seller and a personal favorite?
BS: It's always difficult to know what's going to sell out first at the farmer's market, it's totally unpredictable! Right now my favorite is the kitchen sink loaf. It's a dense pan bread full of sprouted durum and sonora wheat berries, sunflower, flax, and sesame seeds. It's all held together with whole grain sonora, spelt, and buckwheat. For a quick breakfast at home, we love to toast it and top it with honey, chunky almond butter, sliced bananas, olive oil, and sea salt. It's the best!
Patti the Pickle: I hear you are an avid pizza maker - what are your favorite toppings?
BS: Pizza is my favorite food on the planet. We have pizza night at home at least once a week, and it's not uncommon for me to have pizza for breakfast and lunch the next day. Some of my favorite toppings are ricotta, burrata, any kind of mushrooms, sardines, thinly sliced potatoes, prosciutto, arugula......it's all good.