CHAD ROBERTSON IS busy thinking about the future. The world-renowned baker is putting the final touches on his latest project, the soon-to-be opened 5,000-square-foot restaurant The Manufactory, located in the Heath Ceramics building in San Francisco’s Mission District. Nearby, Robertson’s flagship Tartine Bakery and the newer Bar Tartine are still humming, producing hundreds of loaves of his legendary sourdough daily for acolytes near and far.
But today, Robertson — about as close as you’ll get to a rock star in the baking world — is thinking about the past. About the town of Marshall, and the Victorian house on Ranch S2 where he and dozens of other aspiring bread makers flocked to learn about old-world baking techniques and the farm-to-table sensibility.
“It was a very specific kind of foodie utopia,” Robertson says. “Like, an all-whole-grain utopia.”
The artisanal bread-making scene now so popular in hippie havens and farmers’ markets across the country has deep roots in West Marin. That’s where the late Alan Scott, the pioneering oven-builder widely credited with the revival in brick-made, wood-burning ovens — and the resultant boom in artisanal bakeries and pizzerias — constructed his first brick oven for Laurel Robertson, author of the seminal 1976 vegetarian cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen, and where he established a sort of impromptu salon for idealistic young bakers eager to master the old-world techniques he championed.
It was from that West Marin Victorian that Scott’s neighborhood bread-baking business emerged, and where scores of others were inspired to do the same. His 1999 book The Bread Builders helped spawn a new generation of bakers eager to construct their own backyard ovens and make rustic, whole-grain breads. That included Robertson and wife Elizabeth Pruitt, early protégés of Scott’s, who eventually founded (through a loan from Scott) the Bay Village Bakery in Point Reyes and Mill Valley before moving on to enormous acclaim at Tartine, where their country bread has attracted a cult following.
“Alan is why we all ended up there,” Robertson says. “He enabled the whole baking thing to happen. He was about forming a community around the oven.”
Drive through Point Reyes Station today, and you can still see vestiges of that culinary heritage in the line of daytrippers and spandex-clad bikers queued up outside Bovine Bakery, where Scott’s ex-wife, Laura, still often runs the counter. (Scott died in 2009.)
Bovine, opened in 1990 by Bridget Devlin, is in many ways a testament to Scott’s enduring culinary influence and the region’s foodie history. These days, the tiny bakery serves as a gathering point on weekend mornings, as locals and tourists alike line up for savory loaves of bread and sweets like bear claws, morning buns and blueberry scones before pushing off for the day.
Whereas their culinary neighbors in the big city have transformed Sunday’s first meal of the day into a highfalutin extravaganza — you know: mimosas, salmon Benedict, quiche — those around Tomales Bay still seem to prefer the simplicity of rustic, handmade breads and pastries.
“This area lends itself to that,” says Celine Underwood, owner of Brickmaiden Breads, located a few blocks away from Bovine in a cottage that used to house Robertson’s Bay Village Bakery. Underwood bakes between 250 and 400 loaves a day in her wood-fired oven and sells her bread at a dozen or so specialty retailers and farmers’ markets from Stinson to Inverness. “It’s all about community and tradition — and that extends to people visiting the area, too.”
Underwood still bakes with the Scott method — sourcing locally milled whole grain and building a wood fire inside the hearth, then using its tremendous heat, which can reach 750 degrees or higher, to produces a crispy crust and moist interior. Robertson describes Scott’s ovens as nearly perfect. “There’s no better oven,” he says. “They’re like the perfect little bottle opener: you couldn’t improve it.”
Underwood is herself a branch on the bakers’ family tree that grew out of Scott’s ranch. She lived for a time next door to Scott, learned to bake from him, and through him met Robertson.
When in 1999 Robertson and Pruitt relocated Bay Village Bakery from Point Reyes to Mill Valley, Underwood — along with Devlin, for whom she’d apprenticed at Bovine — bought the former bakery and its oven. Five years later, Underwood bought Devlin out, and today, she offers six kinds of bread, including whole-grain wheat loaves — along with salted potato loaves and kalamata olive loaves — and pastries that locals fawn over.
Underwood and Devlin aren’t alone in the local bakery scene.
A short drive up Highway 1 beyond Point Reyes is Tomales Bakery, another popular pit stop where bicyclers and tourists visiting Dillon Beach and points north grab a bite and a rest on the outdoor patio. The hole-in-the-wall oasis, opened in 1992, specializes in cheesy pastries like Gorgonzola cheddar twists, as well as mini pizzas and chocolate “devils,” all baked in house and with locally sourced ingredients. Cameron Ryan purchased the bakery in 1997, then sold it to Larry Peter, owner of Spring Hill Cheese and the Petaluma Creamery, in 2015.
Part of the local preference for grab-and-go dining, especially at breakfast time, is pragmatic, Underwood explains. County regulations prohibit most local businesses from offering sit-down dining, as the area operates on a septic system. “That’s the unromantic reason,” she says.
But there’s a deeper legacy here too, rooted in reverence for natural, locally sourced foods. In fact, most of the region’s signature dishes — the world-famous oysters, the top-flight organic cheeses, the bakery bread made from wheat milled nearby — have a very short route from farm to table.
“There’s a definite focus here on authenticity and artisan and community oriented and smaller scale,” says Elizabeth Ann Hill, operator of West Marin Food and Farm Tours. A chef and master gardener who often visited this area while growing up, she began offering food tours in 2012; the most popular, “Flavors of West Marin,” stops at Brickmaiden and the popular Cowgirl Creamery cheese shop. The culinary scene here, she says, is “all about family farms and sustainability — what comes from the land, who’s growing what, who’s touching what. It’s about honoring the land and the farmers working it.”
Bovine owner Devlin says the region began embracing organic, small-scale production early, with pioneers including the Giacomini Dairy in Marshall, Warren Weber’s Star Route Farms, and Niman Ranch in Bolinas.
Laurel Robertson, whose cookbook sold more than a million copies, traces these leanings to the free-spirited, back-to-the-land types who moved here decades ago — and, in part, to Scott himself. She moved to Tomales in 1970 and recalls him showing up with his whole-wheat desem — or leaven — sourdough at Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, the Eknath Easwaran–founded ashram where she still lives and where Scott built his first brick wood-fired oven. She began baking the desem in her own backyard oven, immortalizing it in Laurel’s Kitchen.
Scott dreamed of a tidy little self-contained grain economy, Robertson says: local farmers growing and milling their own wheat, local bakers making simple loaves and selling nearby. “He wanted everybody to make their own wood-fired ovens,” she adds. “People got really into it. There were just heaps of people around here who were completely happy making their cheeses and breads.”
As Scott’s brick ovens and old-world baking methods caught on, a new generation of bakers sought him out for guidance. Many, including Chad Robertson, ended up living for weeks or months on his ranch. Others attended conferences he hosted in the Marin Headlands and across the country. Dave Miller, who met Scott back in Wisconsin, stayed with him in Marshall years later in the late ’80s. “His place was like this endless train of young, enthusiastic bakers,” he recalls. “It was full of people staying over, sleeping on the floor. It’d never stop buzzing. Everyone was so glad to seek out other like-minded people.”
Miller opened his own rustic bakery, Miller’s Bake House, in Chico, where he still mills his own whole wheat berry to produce hearty loaves. Scott spent weeks constructing Miller’s brick oven with a team of volunteers and often sent would-be bakers to Chico to learn from him. “[Scott] was so solidly placed there in West Marin,” Miller muses. “I’ll always picture him in the fog with his beret and his vest.”
Tissa Stein, another Scott disciple and friend, remembers him from Two Rock, near Petaluma, in the 1980s; she was one of the lucky few who received his weekly bread deliveries. “That bread was phenomenal,” she recalls. “We’d eat four loaves a week: it’d last a couple days, then you’d be hungry for it until the next week.”
Later, she enlisted Scott to build her a backyard oven, aided by her son’s fourth-grade class. She and a friend, Jed Wallach, later began hosting popular communal weekly bread bakes: “We ended up with a lot of experimental bread.” A few years later her young son, sensing an entrepreneurial opening, set up a table at the top of the driveway and sold the leftovers. Word spread about the weekly bread table in Two Rock, and before long Wallach, who also learned from Chad Robertson at Bay Village Bakery, opened the venerable Wild Flour Bread bakery in Freestone.
Today, Wild Flour is a mecca for carb lovers — especially those who prefer to burn calories rather than fossil fuels. Devotees flock in droves to the Bohemian Highway bastion four days a week for handmade pastries and wood-fired brick-oven breads. With its herb and vegetable garden and sprawling lawn out back, Wild Flour also attracts cyclists and weekenders, luring visitors with the scent of its sourdough loaves and fanciful treats like three-cheese fougasse, Egyptian bread made with pear, fig and candied ginger, and Meyer lemon–white chocolate scones. Stein worked with Wallach at Wild Flour and went on to establish her own bakery, Tabor Bread, in Portland, Oregon, where she continues to spread the gospel of Scott.
While many of his protégés say Scott was a purist who might have chafed at some modern baking concessions they’ve employed — experimenting with white flour or using an external fire box for greater oven capacity — Underwood says his legacy is secure. “[Scott] was really intrinsic in the movement that’s happening now about establishing a connection between the farmer, the miller and the baker,” she says. “It was about building community through ovens.”
IF YOU GO
11315 Highway 1, Point Reyes Station; thebovinebakeryptreyes.com
Be sure to try: Morning buns, bear claws, poppy seed–filled croissant, blueberry scone, pizza
40 Fourth Street, Point Reyes Station; brickmaidenbreads.com
Be sure to try: Pain au gros sel (salted potato) sourdough, sesame wheat levain, cardamom-raisin scones
27000 Highway 1, Tomales; tomalesbakery.com
Be sure to try: Cheddar-gorgonzola twists, chocolate devils, marzipan croissant, pizzette
WILD FLOUR BREAD
140 Bohemian Highway, Freestone; wildflourbread.com
Be sure to try: Three-cheese fougasse, rotating whipping-cream-covered scones, Egyptian bread
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Rise and Shine.”