Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bread from Gayle's

IT’S LIKE THIS: A number of years ago a couple of people we knew decided to go into the bakery business. She’d interned, I think, at Chez Panisse, where she helped out in the pastry department; maybe she filled in for Lindsey one of the summers we took off to see what was going on in France.

He’d been a musician and had decided it was time to settle down. A very gifted man: a painter, a sculptor, a guitarist. And an incredibly gifted baker, an intuitive baker — but one with a sense that there were things to learn.

They travelled. He was incapable of visiting a bakery in France, or Italy, or Belgium, or Scandinavia (I think), without pestering the baker in charge: How do you do this? What do you use? How does it go together? How long, how hot? And then what?

They opened their bakery, in a small town south of San Francisco, adjacent to a town we frequented every summer because of a music festival.

I told Lou: There’s a great bakery down here. Oh yes, he said, we’ve gone there for years. No, I said, not that one, this new one. He and Bill were dubious, but they dropped in. Oh yes, they said.

I truly believe that when he bakes bread himself, as he still does from time to time, Joe Ortiz is the finest baker of bread I have ever met. Of course the bakery has grown far beyond its early days, when a business consultant asked if their bakery was a business or a work of art: Business, they said; Good, he said, in that case we can do something.

Something they have certainly done. Gayle’s Bakery dominates its town, Capitola; or, at least, it dominates the crossroads which serves as one of the three or four entrances into town.

We stopped there on Friday for lunch. The Bakery has for many years also included a Rotisserie. We ordered chicken breast from the spit, and roasted potatoes and carrots on the side. We had two or three hours yet to drive, so contented ourselves with water. For dessert, an apricot-raspberry galette for me, a cookie for Lindsey.

But we took care to provision ourselves for the next day. I saw a loaf of raisin nut bread up on the shelf.

In the old days Joe baked what he called a pumpernickel loaf: dark flour, raisins, nuts, baked into a loaf weighing perhaps five pounds, with a slab of white bread-dough across the top, “to distinguish it from its neighbors,” he might have said — that’s an inside joke.

He stopped doing that years ago, and it’s been my sole ongoing complaint with Joe Ortiz and Gayle’s Bakery.

I had a buttered slice of toast from that loaf of raisin nut bread this morning, with my soft-boiled egg — a tradition here now on Sunday mornings.

We finished dinner a couple of hours ago, a delayed St. Patrick’s Day Dinner, corned beef and cabbage, potatoes and carrots. I just finished putting the dishes in the dishwasher. The raisin-nut bread called me from its perch on the breadboard.

No butter, just a thin slice of bread. Absolute perfection. You taste the flour, the yeast, a teeny bit of salt, the raisins, the nuts. Everything in perfect balance. I have long believed that a true loaf of bread has only four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, water. This bread of Joe’s persuades me there are two different kinds of perfection.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


THE OTHERS THINK it’s wildflowers we’re looking for, and maybe that’s what they’re after, though I notice Mac’s just as much interested in birds. But what I’m really travelling for is landscape.

I think landscape is the most essential thing for me — the way I place myself in my world, the way I make whatever sense I can (and that only intuitively, certainly not analytically) of the big and deep issues of Life and Place and Meaning.

This must go back a long way, to my childhood. We moved to the country when I was ten, but even before that we lived in an open landscape for a year or so. In the summer of 1944, when I was not yet nine, we drove slowly down California’s Central Valley, through the Mojave Desert, across Arizona and New Mexico, and settled for a month or two on the dusty plain in Guymon, Oklahoma, before driving on further to northeastern Oklahoma where I turned ten, then eleven years old.

Once out of doors there was no near barrier there; the landscape stretched away as far as one could see. When we moved back to California we were again in the country, and if here the horizons were much closer — since we lived essentially in a valley all our own — the landscape was still the spatial context of my life, far more than would have been the case in a city or town, cluttered with the streets and buildings, telephone poles and front yards, automobiles and passersby so routine a part of an urban existence.

I have my favorite landscapes, dozens of them. We began this trip, last Sunday, visiting one of them, pictured above — not that it would be possible to “picture” it on even a much huger canvas than your computer monitor provides. It’s the view out east from in front of the Mission San Juan Bautista, sweeping from the willow outside its cemetery, on the left, eighty degrees or so to the south. You’re looking across the San Andreas Fault, on which a rich black layer of bottom-land has been deposited over the centuries by the San Benito River.

The missionaries who arrived here after a hard day’s walk from the south, accompanied by pack mules and horses, must have recognized this landscape for its promise — the rich soil, the protecting hills to the west, the water, the immense numbers of birds, the game.

We drove down from San Juan Bautista, on highway 25, to Coalinga, stopping off en route to ramble for hours among the Pinnacles, as described in the previous blog; and the next day — Monday — we continued south, first climbing the graded gravel Parkfield Grade Road into magnificent unspoiled mountain landscape, then dropping into the — well, parklike Parkfield valley, where the search continues for the meaning of seismicity; then pressing on to the third goal of this trip, the vast silence of the Carrizo Plain.

Even on a grey day Soda Lake is impressive; even when there’s considerable water, as there was this time, its evanescence is apparent — landscape in its majesty, its sheer size and space, always implies permanence; but its subtly changing light and color expresses mutability, susceptibility; and vernal pools like Soda Lake can’t help but bring to mind the provisionality of our existence.

MORTALITY. Next day, though, we drove on down to Ojai, where Jim Churchill’s tangerines reminded us of the renewability of it all, and life was once again full of zest. And today the fine historical museum in San Buenaventura, and the fine Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; and tomorrow once more on the road, through the matchless Santa Ynez Valley.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Off south, mid-March, with two friends, to see if we can find some wildflowers.

Day 1, yesterday: South on 101, across a fine Golden Gate Bridge, stop in Woodside for a lunch in a bakery-cafe, then south on 280, back roads, 87. A discovery: Chitactac-Adams Park, a county park south of San Jose, with a fine interpretive trail and exhibit-room reconstructing the Ohlone community that once existed in this charming pastoral setting -- stream, oaks, boulders, oaks, wild plums.

On, finally, to San Juan Bautista, where stayed the night at the San Juan Inn, not terribly expensive, a walk from downtown; and dinner at the Basque restaurant -- don't go there unless you have the steak, savory and flavorful. The lamb stew unpleasant, I'm told; and the house red about what we'd have expected in the mid-1950s.

Up this morning for a walk through the Mission San Juan Bautista, recently and very nicely restored since the latest earthquake -- the painted decorations in the plaster nicely done, the museum exhibits polished up a bit though still lacking in explanatory labels (okay with me), the retablo a tad too operatic, the garden a real delight.

Then the slow drive down Highway 25 and a four-hour ramble through the Pinnacles. What a site! Amazing terrain, rock formations; the wildflowers just beginning -- bush lupine, paintbrush, Indian warrior, white ceanothus, monkeyflower, several others -- I'm no botanist. A fair amount of birdsong down at the parking lot, then silence on the trail, just as I like it. Snow, shade, sun, lichen, silence, rocks, vistas, woods, stream.

An hour's drive south, then turn east, through Coalinga, a snowy owl flying across the road in front of us, the motel, dinner -- expensive! -- at Harris ranch.

You can see more photos at