While on a trip through northern California, a friend suggested passing through the small town of Point Reyes Station to visit an independently operated bakery called Brickmaiden Breads. Currently owned and operated by Celine Underwood, Brickmaiden was originally called Bay Village Bakery— the bakery from which famed bread maker Chad Robertson launched his career. Using a traditional European style brick oven, Brickmaiden is committed to natural, sustainable business practices, using only the best ingredients and old-world methods to make their awesome breads.
The town of Point Reyes Station is merely a blip on the upper left side of the California map — boasting a population of under 850 people. With such a quaint, small town feel, it’s hard to believe it is only a two-hour drive from the congestion of downtown San Francisco. But as the madness of the city ebbs into the backdrop, the rolling hills and coastal wetlands rise up out of the horizon and take full view. Arriving into town, the first place I encountered was the butcher shop. In I went, hoping someone who could point me in the right direction. The locals informed me that Brickmaiden does not often receive visitors, as they don’t sell bread out of the bakery itself. They gave me the phone number, though, and I called hoping to reach someone. To my surprise, it was Celine herself who answered my call. I told her I was interested in coming over to visit and hopefully shoot some photos of the bakery in action. She agreed, but told me to head over quickly because they were about to finish shaping the last loaves for the day.
I arrived at the address Celine had given me completely baffled as the location at which I arrived looked like a residential style house with no sign of a bakery. I walked around for a while trying to find something closer to what I had expected to find until I noticed a tiny amount of smoke coming out of a small yellow building behind the house. I made my way through the side gate and found the crew stoking the fire and shaping the last of the dough for the day.
Observing the bread making process first hand, I clearly saw the amount of artistry and technique required when working with naturally leavened dough. They worked diligently with finesse to shape each loaf. Bread making to me seemed like the perfect marriage of art and science. Every element, from mixing the minimal ingredients to fermenting and shaping, affects the final outcome — a loaf with a dark, crisp crust with an airy, moist crumb. But the process has to be done just right. Years of hard work and dedication go into learning how to control these elements. The bakers at Brickmaiden develop an intimate, almost relational knowledge of the process and ingredients they use. The evidence is in the delicious loaves they produce.
One key element in preserving the quality of the artisan bread is by producing smaller quantities. Thus, artisan bread can’t be mass produced. Producing roughly 300 loaves a day, Brickmaiden provides enough bread for their community as well as a few visitors. Their goal is to remain as low impact as possible. However, as demand rises for artisan bread, small operations often face a crossroads — to remain small and face the financial challenges and temptations of “selling out” to meet growing demand, or expand operations and risk sacrificing the very qualities that constitute the identity of the operation in the first place. Brickmaiden seems to be holding strong to their roots —but as the artisan bread trend is taking off, it seems only a matter of time before the demand increases to the point where expansion is necessary. This is the dilemma of the artisan food community — how do you expand in a way that maintains the core values of being an artisan producer? While there are loads of products on supermarket shelves labeled “artisan,” to be truly artisan implies that the food product is made in small batches using traditional techniques. By definition, the work involved in true artisan breads simply cannot be mechanized.
I don’t know that Brickmaiden is setting out to change the world, but by striving to bless their community with something quality and ultimately beneficial, they are paving the way and inspiring others to follow in their wake. By simply providing their neighbors and visitors with quality bread birthed out of dedication, hard work, and nature itself, local bakeries like Brickmaiden inspire us all to allow our expectations of the food we eat to rise to a higher level.