Letter from Lompoc: Serendipity & the staff of life—not to mention, beans

Lompoc’s a favorite road-trip destination for SO many reasons—most of ‘em vegetable in nature. Bakeries, though, always loom large in my travel research as well, and for an October trip I turned up a bakery, or, more like, a baker… how, I forget exactly—through the usual combination of food-related social media and circuitous keyword searches, I learned that Piedrasassi Winery, whose tasting room is in the charmingly light-industrial Lompoc Wine Ghetto, had a wood-fired oven, and, moreover, a baker wood-firing it: Jonathan Eng.

Jonathan Eng with bread

Jonathan Eng among his loaves.

My first thought was, wow that’s weird—Jonathan Eng is the name of a professional baker I interviewed a few years ago, a French Culinary Institute graduate who came from New York to open the first Orange County Le Pain Quotidien in Newport Beach. (LPQ’s giant multi-grain sourdough miche is one of my very favorite breads.) We had a great discussion about flour, having a meeting of the minds about King Arthur Flour’s dependable consistency making it good for professional and home baker alike. And you’re probably way ahead of me here: yep, it’s the self-same Jonathan Eng at Piedrasassi. After LPQ he helped open Superba Food & Bread in Los Angeles, and now, he’s here, just him and a handsome, hardcore, wood-fired oven.

Piedrasassi bread oven, racks

Piedrasassi wood-fired oven.

And I do not exaggerate the solitude of his role. After training and managing large staffs in professional kitchens, he’s on his own here—completely. Every single rustic sourdough loaf that emerges from that oven has been mixed, shaped, proofed, slashed, and baked by Eng, to the tune of 275 a week. Maybe you have to be a recovering bread baker like me to fully appreciate how impressive this is. I mean, every single one! Kind of mind-blowing, really.

And not only mixing shaping proofing slashing: He also mills the flour himself, from heirloom grains grown right in the Lompoc Valley. The on-site mill was imported from Germany. Organic rye grown by Pence Ranch and durum and heirloom Sonora wheat come from about an 8-mile radius, some from Piedrassi’s vineyard land. Only a garden out back could be hyper-er local.

Piedrasassi grain mill

On-site mill for hyperlocal grains.

I was thrilled to hear another familiar name is part of the process, too: Lompoc Valley Seed & Milling screens the grains for Eng and Piedrasassi. Incredible resource. When in Lompoc, don’t miss the chance to stop in for super fresh local beans—including the famous Santa Maria-style pinquitos. They’re open weekday business hours and SO worth a detour.

But: bread. Baking the wood-fired-oven way is a world unto itself, even for a baker with Eng’s training and experience. His former instructor at New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Institute) cautioned dryly, “It’s not as romantic as it looks.” But something about the process catches a baker’s fancy, or some bakers, anyway. A big part of the mystical hold bread-making has on a person is definitely the connection to something primal, fundamental, downright ur. Wood-oven baking is a Zeno’s-paradox-step closer than conventional gas or electric to this ephemeral feeling. Of course I don’t know that all this is what drew Jonathan to his current gig. But I suspect it’s a factor.

Piedrasassi bread cropped 2

Seeded and plain Sonora and Durum.

Of course, the proof’s in the pain. It is excellent. Just look at those interiors—not to mention, the crusts. Such a sweet, subtle wheat flavor. Certainly the fresh-milledness and freshness of the grain itself plays a part. I have at times milled my own flour for bread, from organic grain, but this flavor is something else. Maybe it really is the taste of local. Very light acidity, too, which is how I like my sourdough. Lucky that Jonathan feels the same way.

My habitual flours are the fine organic Central Milling products from Keith Giusto Bakery Supply—the same source that Acme Bread and Tartine Bakery use. I’ve been watching the current local-heirloom-flour phenom, wondering if it can grow enough to be relevant to the wider home bread-baking world, let alone the stringent standards and volume needs of a professional bakery. There are bakers selling bread from local wheat commercially, already, but so far it’s pretty boutique-y in scope. I know there are those aiming to change this, notably the Tehachapi Grain Project, and I’m following along with interest.

Jonathan Eng at oven

Those rye loaves in the back there weren’t ready to come out yet… NEXT TIME.

For several years I bought my flour from an organic farm in Kansas that both grew and milled, and while I completely trusted the purity of the product, it wasn’t consistent enough for me as a home baker—it varied a lot from 50-pound-bag to 50-pound-bag. (When I got bit by the bread-baking thing it progressed pretty fast from supermarket-sized 5-pound bags to 10x that amount roosting in the front-hall closet… I told you I was recovering.) Professionals making 100s of loaves a day have even a greater need for predictable results.

I love and adore the idea of my flour being as local as my veg, and will happily experiment whilst awaiting further grain-related developments. And of course I’ll buy armloads of Jonathan Eng’s bread whenever I’m within striking distance. You should, too—he bakes Mondays and Fridays, and bread is available at the Lompoc tasting room and bakery those days, as well as at the Saturday Santa Barbara farmers markets.

 

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