The staff of life

Bread is an old business—at least 5,000 years old. “One day, the porridge was accidentally left over the fire and it cooked into a rock-hard cake or galette,” writes Joe Ortiz in The Village Baker, describing the first primitive breads. The rest, as they say, is history. Such are the best things in life: an accident, followed by an idea, followed by years of experimentation. Then, voilà—a perfect specimen of a loaf, a hearty crust enveloping a soft chewy interior.

The best bread is an oxymoron: dense but airy; substantial but light; demure but full of flavor all at the same time. Americans have not always eaten the best bread. One might say, in fact, that Americans have consistently eaten inferior bread—machine-produced, don’t-squeeze-the-Charmin, dull-flavored loaves of convenience sold at grocery store outlets. While I’ll concede there is a role for these breads in modern life, there’s bread, and then there’s bread.

In this greater Sacramento region, the place where such compelling bread originates is a 2,000-square-foot facility in Davis, where approximately 200 pounds of starter is prepared nightly to yield 1,500-2,000 loaves the next day. A dozen or so bakers work in shifts to hand produce 64 different types of bread (some only varying in shape), ranging from baguette to challah, to focaccia, asiago and rye … the list goes on. This is Aziz Fattahi’s operation, which he aptly calls “Village Bakery” for the handcrafted nature of his breads.

A bite of the hearty raisin walnut loaf, or really any of the loaves, might lead you to think that Fattahi hails from a long line of bakers. But don’t let the perfection of his bread fool you. Fattahi has been baking bread for just a few short years. Casual, lean, somewhere around 40, the Iranian-born Fattahi is all determined confidence, looking like he can turn just about any idea into a successful business.

Up to the mid-’90s, that idea-turned-successful-business was an auto shop in Davis. Having graduated from UC Davis in 1983, Fattahi deferred a return to his turbulent homeland and started a garage instead. It thrived, but he didn’t, and eventually, he felt he wanted to start something else. The choice was obvious. “Coming from Iran, you know what good fresh bread is. You couldn’t get good fresh bread here,” says Fattahi of the Davis region back then. So he set out to start a bakery. Never mind that he had no experience, and the most he had ever baked was a couple of loaves at home. It was enough that Fattahi had had good bread as a child.

In Iran, the breads are generally flat, produced through long fermentation and a sourdough culture. There are four basic types of breads, and each baker only makes one kind, Fattahi explains. There’s a baker for the early morning bread, the lunch bread, and maybe a couple of dinner breads. The variance lies in the shape, flavor and thickness. Back in his youth, Fattahi loved sangak, a thin, flat sourdough baked on hot pebbles for a few minutes. When the bread was done, the pebbles would be shaken off, leaving dark indentations on the underside.

While the breads of his youth were inspiration for Fattahi, the bread he imagined for his business was “a crusty French with a lot of flavor, not too sour.” A year and a half of home baking and five days of classes gave him his perfect recipes for pain au levain, sourdough baguette, and seeded batard—Village Bakery’s three inaugural breads.

Bread-making is not quite like any other business. It never stops, says Fattahi. The starter is prepared during the night. At 7 a.m., the mixing starts. The breads undergo a slow fermentation process, and just about every loaf is shaped by hand, with the exception of the baguettes, which are first machine shaped, then finished by hand. Such meticulous care means the baking doesn’t begin until 5 or 6 p.m. The heartier loaves are baked first, the baguettes last. At 4 a.m., everything is ready. Fattahi’s breads head for area distributors such as Selland’s Market, Taylor’s Market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, as well as his retail store on Second Street.

There is something unique about Village Bakery breads. A subtle sourdough flavor permeates 90 percent of the loaves, quite different from the sharpness that characterizes classic sourdoughs. In Fattahi’s breads, the gentle tang strikes a perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the raisins in the raisin walnut, and forms an assertive foundation to the cheeses in the asiago and garlic Parmesan loaves.

Breaking apart the loaves, one can see the airy pockets that have formed during baking and the patterns of dough being stretched and exploded by intense heat. Each loaf reflects a primordial past, a clashing of geophysical elements in miniature. This, my friends, is bread.