Artisan Lavinia: Honest, Life-Giving Heritage Bread

By Laura Petersen

Breadmaker Dorian Matei, the founder of Artisan Lavinia, makes bread from organic, heirloom grains such as kamut and spelt. Inside his home bakery in the Yuba County town of Dobbins-Oregon House, he grinds these aromatic grains using a stone mill. He ferments the dough with an almost equal proportion of water before gently folding, rather than kneading it. Then he bakes the carefully prepared loaves in a wood-fired oven built with his own hands. Twice a week, Dorian travels from his Foothills home surrounded by vineyards and olive groves to make deliveries of fresh bread to BriarPatch and, on Saturdays, to the Nevada City Farmers’ Market.

Q & A with Breadmaker Dorian Matei of Artisan Lavinia

What is good bread?
Good bread should be a tasty, nourishing and faithful companion to most of our meals. It should have a thick mahogany crust, with a moist, almost custard-like crumb and a delicate balance of acidity and nutty flavors.

Why all of this?
It’s no surprise to me that so many of us avoid bread and/or
gluten. I had the same reaction years ago, and that’s what propelled me to start making bread. I learned that most of the problems with industrial bread begin way before we bite into it. First of all, the conventional methods of growing grains are almost nightmarish, when you really look into it, what with the modern hybrids of wheat, the industrial yeast and additives, and the plastic bags. All this turns what should be a nourishing food into a stale, dry, “puffy” experience.
What ingredients should I look for when buying bread?
Honest bread is made with three ingredients: flour, water and salt—nothing else. There are other important ingredients that you won’t find on the label, though, such as time—because artisanal bread needs time to allow for fermentation. Another key ingredient is hydration—the amount of water used.

What is hydration and why is that important?
Artisanal bread-making mirrors the transformations that naturally occur when a seed germinates. Water activates a series of complex transformations designed to nourish the germ and bring new life. If the seed dries out once germination begins, it dies, and these transformations simply don’t take place. It’s the same with bread-making. Only when there’s a high level of hydration (nearly equal parts of flour and water) will all the enzymatic processes take place that transform chalky powder into nourishing bread.

How can we find out the degree of hydration in our bread?
Your only clue is to look at the crumb: it should be moist and tender, and it must have gelatinized; it will look shiny and almost translucent at times. This indicates that the gluten swelled because it had enough hydration, and then gelled during the baking process. Bread made this way will not become stale and will have excellent keeping qualities. I often tell our customers that the most insulting thing they can do to our bread is to put it in a plastic bag in the fridge.

What are organic and biodynamic grains?
Ironically, organic grains are what we imagine conventional grains to be: grown naturally in a field, fertilized, and harvested. Unfortunately, conventional grains are subject to shocking quantities of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and yes, herbicides. No wonder that slice of bread does not sit well with you!

What are ancient grains and why are they better than modern varieties?
We have access to a few ancient, heirloom varieties of wheat such as kamut (technically Khorasan), spelt, einkorn, and emmer, which have been cultivated for at least five or six thousand years. Broadly speaking, their protein matrix (gluten) is more primitive and more digestible. Also, the plants of these species grow much taller—up to six feet—which means the roots go much deeper to sustain the plant. Naturally, the ancient and heirloom plants are also more drought-tolerant and have a higher density of minerals, nutrition, and flavor.

What are whole grains? Why does it matter if grains are freshly milled?
An essential part of an artisanal bakery is the mill. Freshly milled flour is highly aromatic, moist, and vibrant. The enzymes and oils that are naturally present when the grain is cracked open either become stale or dissipate after a few days. The standard white flour is the result of essentially stripping away the most flavorful, nutritious part of the grain and leaving the starchy endosperm, which is devoid of mineral content, B vitamins, and pretty much everything that makes bread good for your body.

Why is fermentation good for our health?
Fermentation, which is the result of adding what is commonly known as a sourdough culture, takes the paste and transforms it into dough that’s teeming with yeasts, enzymes, bacteria, and microorganisms. This process breaks down complex substances into more digestible ones, creating a stable loaf that doesn’t become stale quickly, but actually evolves and develops new flavors on your kitchen counter.

What should we look for when choosing our bread?
Perhaps foremost, look for a small bakery. A baker working on a small scale is less tempted to cut corners to stimulate business. A one-man bakery can serve about five hundred people. On this scale, the baker can know his customers and their preferences, and establish a truly personal relationship with them. Get to know your baker and ask about the grains, the fermentation… and look for that translucent crumb!

You bake in a wood-fired oven. How important is that?
I can first tell you this: it’s a very satisfying experience for the baker. You hear the fire crackling and smell the aromas of the wood. That feeling of satisfaction goes into the bread. (It’s also hard work and less efficient than a modern deck oven.) I am sure, too, that some of the wisdom of an old oak tree passes into the bread while it’s being baked on a wood fire.

Do you have any new projects in the works?
Yes, I would like to organize an artisanal bread contest. This is very common in Europe. Bakers come together and submit their best loaves, judges evaluate them, and people get to taste lots of wonderful bread. The real aim would be to show our community just how good artisanal bread can be!

Learn more about Artisan Lavinia at artisanlavinia.com