Patti Bess: Sierra sourdough |

Patti Bess: Sierra sourdough

Keith Nikkel is a trained rocket scientist and found his love for making bread when he and his wife got out of the corporate rat race and moved to Truckee while opening their first business called the Ponderosa Deli.
Photo by David Bess |


This is a dressed up version of a traditional Mediterranean soup. Aiigo bouiido sava la vido — boiled water saver of lives. Maybe a derivation of the original Stone Soup. It combines water, garlic, herbs and a few tomatoes.

The recipe comes from “The Soup and Bread Book,” by Crescent Dragonwagon. The book has been around for a long time, but remains one of my favorite cookbooks.

What this soup requires is a crusty piece of artisan bread to float in it. Truckee Sourdough Bakery’s Ciabatta is my go to choice. If there are a few tomatoes still coming from the garden, they will work perfectly or you can use canned ones.

Garlic is used here in three ways: sautéed and simmered, simmered without sautéing and mashed raw, then spread on the breads. Deliciously satisfying!

Aigo Bouiido

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

8 cloves of garlic, peeled

3 to 4 large ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped

Or about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of canned, stewed tomatoes

5 cups chicken or vegetable broth (cubes are OK)

2 pinches each of dried leaf sage, rosemary, and thyme

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 thick slices of good crusty artisan bread

4 to 6 ounces grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese

In a large soup pot heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Put 2 cloves of garlic through a garlic press, and add them to the pan. Sauté 1 minute, stirring almost continually.

Add the tomatoes, broth, herbs, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Push 3 cloves of the remaining garlic through the press, add them to the olive oil. Brush the breads on one side with this oil. Divide the grated cheese among the pieces.

Place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until melted and golden, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Push the remaining cloves of garlic through the press directly into the soup. To serve, place one hot, cheese cheese-crusted slice of bread in each of the bowls, and ladle the hot garlic soup over it. And invite me, please!

Driving down West River Road, I can hear the gurgling of the Truckee River as pines whisper in the autumn breeze. The scent of warm, fresh bread fills the air making my stomach grumble. I should have had lunch first.

I’m on my way to the Truckee Sourdough Company where Keith and Dianne Nikkel, along with 85 employees/team members, produce my favorite bread — ciabatta.

These days Truckee Sourdough Company is producing 25,000 to 30,000 loaves of bread a day, but it didn’t start that way.

As a young man, Keith trained as a rocket scientist working at Lockheed until he and Dianne decided it was time to get out of the corporate rat race. With their young family, they moved to Truckee and opened the Ponderosa Deli which most Truckee residents still remember.

In the early 90s, fresh artisan breads were just not available and good sourdough was nonexistent once one crossed the Bay Bridge. Always the mad scientist, Keith started experimenting with bread making for the deli.

Culinary schools were not as yet teaching good baking techniques. It took six weeks of trial and error using a variety of recipes, scrounging up information, and making small batches in his 20 quart mixer to come up with an excellent bread.

The bread sold fast at the deli, so they began taking it to the Farmer’s Market every week. There’s no loafing around in this family. Their three young children were put to work walking around the market offering samples of their daddy’s bread, and it sold out quickly.

The Nikkel family has worked together ever since. Their motto has become “families that bake together, stay together.”

Within months several small markets and restaurants were ordering their breads. One of the best marketing decisions was naming the company the Truckee Sourdough Bread Company.

Everyone in California heard of Truckee on the evening news as it was/and still is reliably the coldest place in the state. In the early years it was easy to get their breads into more and more restaurants and small markets. In 1996 they sold the deli — to make more bread.

As the number of retail outlets grew, so did the retail line. Expanding from sourdough baguettes into hearty flavors such as Kalamata ciabattas and multi-grain batards. With the retail business growing at incredible rates, restaurants were next to jump on-board.

What started with artisan table breads, soon developed into chefs demanding more and more from the small bakery.

There’s an old saying Keith told me: “It takes a lot of dough to make bread — and it takes a lot of bread to make any dough.”

Their breads, ciabatta, rolls, baguettes and scones are made with three ingredients, the same as the first loaves Keith baked — freshly milled unbleached flour, water and salt.

He still uses the original sourdough starter made from organic merlot grapes from a vineyard in the Napa Valley (and they feed it every day).

The softer the bread you find on the grocery shelves the more guarantee of chemical additives. Most contain antioxidants to extend shelf life, dough conditioners for softer texture, sugar to enhance flavor and color to be more colorful.

Keith and Dianne have not gone into making gluten-free breads. In order to do it correctly, they would need to produce it in a completely different facility. Currently, that’s not feasible.

As Keith and I walk back into their production area, I can smell fresh rosemary for their rosemary ciabatta.

“I am very proud of our employees,” Keith said. “They work hard and we can depend on them. If there is some hiccup in the production line they know how to sidestep it, innovate and not stop the flow.”

Truckee, like many other cities in California, has a housing crisis. Consequently, finding workers who can afford to live in Truckee is one of the biggest business challenges the Nickels’ face. Most of their 85 employees drive up from Reno.

Something I didn’t know is that breads go into a supermarket on a “one day buyback” agreement. It doesn’t matter if the consumer buys the bread at a discount grocer or a delicatessen. The day old bread must be returned the next day if it doesn’t sell and replaced with fresh.

Their son, Scott, handles sales and manages the complicated distribution. Son, Carson works in accounting and IT. A few cousins and nephews also work at the company.

As the company expanded, a major challenge was getting the trucks over the mountains. Drivers had to be on the road by 3 a.m. during snowstorms, slides, floods and power outages.

Currently, they maintain 22 trucks, 18 of which are delivering every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. And last winter was their favorite year yet.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She lives in Grass Valley and can be reached at:

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