A value worth sharing — Oregon House breadmaker finds path with ancient grains
August 8, 2017
Every week, Dorian Matei, breadmaker and founder of Artisan Lavinia, spends three and a half days creating 300 perfect loaves of bread made from organic, ancient grains like kamut and spelt.
Dedicated to his craft, Matei is both alchemist and artist, working with two beings — dough and fire. Inside his home bakery, he grinds the aromatic grains with a stone mill. He ferments the dough with almost equal proportion water before gently folding rather than kneading. Then he bakes the shaped loaves in a wood-fired oven built with his own hands.
"Even in France, you can't find people who do what I do anymore," said Matei, who lives in the rural agricultural community of Oregon House in Yuba County with his wife, Carmina, and two small children.
Both he and Carmina are from Romania. In 2002, they came to this region known for its Mediterranean climate, perfect for vineyards and olive groves. Matei works part time at Renaissance Winery just up the road from his five-acre homestead, where the couple raises honeybees and grows a lush kitchen garden and 1,000 lavender plants for making olive oil-based soaps.
Three years ago, Matei launched his business, Artisan Lavinia, when he brought 30 loaves of bread to the Oregon House farmer's market. When the bread sold out in the first half hour, he knew he was on to something.
This summer marks the first year the baker has set up shop in the Nevada City Farmers Market selling to people, like family, who care about who bakes their bread. Twice a week, Artisan Lavinia also makes deliveries to BriarPatch Co-op.
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"We really love what we do," said Matei. "Business is a by-product."
A self-taught journey
"If my grandfather had been a baker, I wouldn't need all this," he said, referring to the modern digital thermometer on the wood-fired oven in the heart of his small bakery. The oven will store heat for 8 to 12 hours.
What defines his bread is the use of heritage grains, freshly milled flour, high hydration, long and gentle fermentation and a wood-fired oven.
Matei relies on his most primal senses — sight, taste and smell — when fermenting and baking. The key is a very wet dough. The high water content triggers the chemical process and breaks down and conditions the dough. The particles swell with water. In baking, they become gelatinous, translucent and shiny. The result is a very digestible, moist and flavorful bread.
"The bread I make keeps for a week on the counter," he said.
The loaf of bread Matei bakes today existed for a long time in his mind. He remembers as a boy eating a fresh baked loaf of bread in the countryside. His father bought a four- to five-pound loaf from market, slightly sweet, dark and warm. That made a lifelong impression.
Dissatisfied with the bread found on American grocery shelves, Matei found his path. He wanted to get to the source of his early bread transcendence. So he started experimenting.
"I was just trying to get to this. Get to the source. Even after having made thousands of loaves I cannot say I have mastered the craft. I learn something new every time."
His influences include some of the finest artisanal bread makers on the Western shore. He bought fresh milled flour from famed Dave Miller in Chico and studied the work of Chad Robertson, rising star at San Francisco's Tartine Bakery. Both men are featured in Author Michael Pollen's book, "Cooked."
"They shaped this. It's a small world once you enter it," said Matei.
"The baker is the conductor of an intricate symphony of transformation that takes in everything from the grass seed to the millstone, the microbial fermentation to the pressure-cooking, and culminates in the salivation that a well-baked bread inspires in the mouth," said Michael Pollen in "Cooked."
Most of the bread on the market today in the U.S. — upwards of 99 percent — comes from a hybrid of hard red wheat — favored by commercial growers for its short easier-to-harvest growth — two and a half feet compared to more than six feet of ancient varieties.
Matei prefers the benefits of ancient varieties. He purchases his grain from a grower in Oregon, Azure Farms.
The antiquity plants have much deeper roots — stretching six feet deep in the ground compared to their hybrid contemporaries — making the primitive grains preferred for drought tolerance.
Ancient varieties are also known for their flavor and nutrition. A more simple gluten composition found in early varieties, makes them more digestible by people with gluten sensitivity. Fermentation takes digestibility and nutrient absorption a step further.
"What I do is very traditional. Not something fashionable but a staple, people forget," he said of the crop that much of Central and Northern European populations subsisted on for centuries.
"In Europe, if you don't have church and a bakery, you can't have a village," Matei said.
In the grass family, ancient breadmaking grains like Emmer have their roots in the Middle East in what is now Turkey, traced back as many as 8,000 years ago. Kamut and Spelt are Matei's favorites.
With his skills now fine-tuned, Matei is now building community at the table.
"I suddenly realized this is very valuable. It's so valuable, I felt I had to share it," he said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.