Zach Schat, seen Thursday with freshly baked loaves of Sonora Wheat bread, is using locally produced flour to bake one of the sourdough varieties he sells in his downtown Ukiah bakery. Chris Pugh-Ukiah Daily Journal
The main challenge in baking with the Sonora Wheat, he said, is it has a lot less gluten than most of the wheat strains used for breads. And, as most people know by now, gluten is pretty much what makes bread worth eating.
So instead of the one-day process for a typical sourdough, Schat has designed a three-day one for the Sonora Wheat.
“About 2 a.m. Tuesday we start the pre-ferment process, then we mix the dough on Wednesday, and on Thursday we put it in the oven,” he said, explaining that it took many weeks of trial and error to make a consistently good loaf that he thought people would want to eat.
And like many people in a frustrating relationship, Schat turned to family members and other trusted advisers for help.
One was retired veterinarian David Crew, whom Schat described as being “truly passionate about bread.
“He helped a ton, especially with creating the pre-fermentation process,” he said. “He also told me to be patient, to mix it slower.”
Another adviser was his cousin Jan Schat, “a world-renowned baker in his own right,” who helped when it came time to “stop messing with the dough” and just put it in the oven.
Once it’s in the oven, it needs to be “baked quite a while,” and that time creates a wonderfully dark, thick and chewy crust which not only adds to the flavor, but likely helps each loaf stay fresh longer.
“It’s got incredible shelf life,” Schat said of the bread, adding that the long fermentation process also helps with preservation. If you don’t slice all the bread at once, he said, and instead cut off only what you need, then put the rest of the loaf away in a paper bag, “It will stay good for three days.”
Another positive, Schat said, is that the lack of gluten in the flour may mean some people not enjoying bread anymore can eat it again.
“I’ve heard from people who have problems with gluten, not true celiac disease but gluten intolerance, that they don’t have the same problems when they eat this bread,” he said.
So despite the flour’s drawbacks, Schat is determined to stick with the relationship, and every Thursday will be baking at least a dozen loaves.
“Hopefully, people like it,” he said, explaining that he needs to charge more for the loaves of Sonora Wheat because the flour is “three times more expensive, $1.20 a pound versus 40 cents.
“So, if I’m still looking at the loaves on Friday, I might have to rethink this,” he said, “But for now, it’s in our new pamphlet, so I’m committed to baking them.”
GROWN AND MILLED IN MENDOCINO COUNTY
The bags of Sonora Wheat flour Schat is using right now likely came from fields near the Nelson Family Vineyards south of Ukiah. But future bags will contain wheat grown on a three-acre patch near a vineyard in Redwood Valley.
That’s where Doug Mosel and Stuart Schroeder were harvesting wheat Friday morning with the help of a combine.
“It’s called a combine because it combines what used to be separate processes: the cutting and the threshing of the wheat,” said Schroeder, explaining that the inside of the combine is a factory of sorts.
Once the wheat stalks are cut by the turning blades on the front of the combine, they are pulled onto conveyer belts of “fingers” that grab the wheat heads and “thresh” the husk from the grain.
An “elevator” on the side of the combine then takes the grain pieces up to the top of the combine where a small, twisting auger spits them into a tank with a much larger, twisting auger.
Both augers help filter out all the stuff you don’t want, like weeds and stickers, and leaves behind mostly grain.
“I thought I was going to have a devil of a time getting rid of all the doggone start thistle,” said Mosel, looking down at the grain collected in the combine. “But it looks really good.”
Schroeder said star thistle and other weeds are just part of the process when you grow organically, and luckily Mosel has the right equipment to make decent flour despite the persistent intruders.
As for whether the flour makes decent bread, Mosel said he was impressed with recent loaves he tried, especially since he wouldn’t expect anyone to bake bread with the Sonora Wheat, but choose instead one of the red wheat varieties he grows.
“I chose heirloom varieties that would grow well here,” he said, and Schroeder explained that the Sonora Wheat is better suited to the Mendocino County climate than the other much more lucrative crops like grapes and marijuana.
“Because those crops take lots of water,” he said, explaining that they hadn’t irrigated the wheat they were harvesting Friday at all. “We planted it in February, and luckily we got enough rain that month and afterward to get a decent crop.”