BAKER'S PASSION BRINGING IN THE DOUGH
DELLA FATTORIA STRIVES FOR PERFECT BREAD
Published on June 25, 1997
The verdant wine growing regions of Europe and the vineyards of Sonoma and Napa counties have distinct natural features affecting the flavor of their wines, and appellations like Bordeaux or Carneros make it easier for consumers to know what they're savoring.
Bread baker Kathleen Weber would like to see her hearty loaves of homemade bread also carry an appellation, identifying them as originating in rural Petaluma. Her Della Fattoria bakery, which makes bread for the toniest restaurants and grocery stores in the North Bay, says this area's soil, sea breezes, and even the microscopic bacteria in the air influence the taste of her bread.
The moist, dense loaves pulled from her wood-fired stone oven off Skillman Lane are often compared to French baguettes or rustic Italian breads. But as Weber has concentrated on perfecting her recipes, they've evolved into a style that's uniquely Della Fattoria, translated from Italian as ``of the farm.''
``We're working very hard to develop our own style, and aren't trying to be like anyone else. We're striving for our own regional bread,'' said Weber, who manages the business along with her husband, Ed, on their 15-acre property which was once a chicken ranch.
The small-scale Della Fattoria bakery delivers kalamata olive, pumpkin seed, walnut, rosemary meyer lemon, braided currant and polenta bread to restaurants like the French Laundry, Babette's, Sonoma Mission Inn, and Cafe Lolo. Among its retail customers are the Petaluma Market, Petaluma Natural Foods, Palisades Market in Calistoga, Sonoma Market, Pearson and Co., and the Oakville Grocery.
A longtime baking connoisseur, Weber kneaded and shaped loaves for her family and friends, but two years ago her passionate hobby was transformed into a business.
Her son, Aaron, 26, was working as a chef at the Sonoma Mission Inn, and gave some of his mother's bread to his boss to taste. The chef was so impressed with the flavor he asked Weber if she could bake for the restaurant.
After securing a license from the state for wholesale production, Weber began turning out 120 loaves on weekends and 80 loaves during the week for Sonoma Mission Inn.
``It was a dream,'' said Weber, who had worked for years as a clothing buyer and retail sales clerk for Mattei's Department Store in downtown Petaluma. Prior to that, she'd worked in the oncology unit of Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa.
Now, baking students from the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley are brought by their instructor on field trips to Della Fattoria's tiny bakery to observe the Weber family's method of making bread in a wood-fired oven. And in the tightly-knit gourmet foods and restaurant circles of Sonoma and Napa counties, Della Fattoria is carving out a comfortable niche.
Quality over quantity
Kathleen Weber never intends to engage in mass production for supermarkets. Her breads, which sell for $4 to $5 a loaf retail, are among the most expensive.
``We're trying to do the cream of the crop. We like just the high end and have a very trained customer. This is tiny, low volume and high quality,'' said Weber. ``We have a real partnership with our accounts.''
Since the Webers are essentially hand-picking clients, Della Fattoria has no business sign in front of the private lane leading to the bakery, nor do they have a listed business phone number.
In 1994, Ed and Kathleen decided to build a stone oven after hearing his father, Ed Sr., a native of Germany, talk about the unique qualities of European bread baked in a wood-fired stone oven. Often villagers would bring their dough, or even uncooked casseroles, to a communal oven in the center of town in the morning, and pick up their food later in the day.
Weber envisioned once her oven was built that her neighbors might drop off their casseroles to be cooked, but now realizes that the hyperactive lifestyles of the 1990s are more in sync with five-minute microwave dinners than labor intensive, slow-cooked casseroles.
``It's always been about lifestyle. Ed talked about having a secure place to live and growing your own food as much as you can,'' said Kathleen, explaining he came from a large family and food was often scarce.
``If you were from Europe, you'd tell us you could taste and smell the difference. This is an entirely different type of bread. It's very purist. We're replicating the bread made centuries ago,'' she said.
Under the guidance of master oven designer Alan Scott of Marshall, the Webers built their oven in a porch area off their house. The ``retained heat oven'' stays hot 24-hours-a-day and the temperature is kept at a minimum of 450 degrees. Ed stokes the fire in the early evening with eucalyptus wood cut to fit in the 4 by 6-foot cooking space, and the heat is stored in the bricks and outer oven.
Once the wood turns to ash, the oven is swept out and it sits empty for three hours to equalize the heat before bread baking begins. Ed, Kathleen and Aaron all participate in the baking process, and on their busiest day, manage eight separate bakes.
Kathleen takes the night-owl shift, rising after midnight to mix dough, and goes back to bed at 5 a.m. for a nap before resuming with her day's business chores.
No easy task
When asked if the work's harder than selling clothing at Mattei's, Weber laughs loudly before responding: ``Yes''. In the beginning, she worked 18 hours a day, but it took a physical toll and her ankles began to swell and her wrists became sore.
``Last June I realized I was sinking,'' Weber said. When Aaron came to work for her, he brought useful knowledge of production baking.
Della Fattoria's dough is made from a naturally fermented starter and no commercial yeast is used. Unbleached organic flour, sea salt and spring water are used in the breads.
``A one-pound loaf of our bread may be the same size as someone else's but theirs has lots of air and less flavor. The slower fermentation (we use) allows the flavor to develop,'' she said.
The breads have unique shapes and some are decorated with patterns.
PHOTO: b&w by Jeff Kan Lee/Press Democrat