By Gary VanDeWalker
story: Gary VanDeWalker photo: photographybytaryn.com
THE WEED BAKERY
Sourdough bread has a pungent, tangy taste unique to the age, humidity and elevation of the starter dough. A small portion of the starter is set aside, and if fed flour and water daily, it will last for years. The bread became the main food item of the California Gold Rush, as “sourdough” became a nickname for miners. Today, the bread is a mainstay of the Weed Bakery and the starter of a dream for Mike Michelon and his wife, Margie.
The small-town bakery is an original Weed business, founded in 1906 by the Alfier brothers. Many of the original bakers were Italians, first passing through Ellis Island before spending their early mornings producing the sweet and sour breads of the bakery. Since 2007, the Michelons, along with their daughter and son-in-law, Marlena and Kevin Shaffer, can be found as early as 2 am mixing and rolling dough as the aroma of fresh-baked bread makes the early morning passerby wants to grab for the knife and butter.
The heart of the business is the brick kiln oven. Produced by the famous J.P. Glaser Company in San Francisco, it was built prior to 1917 and is one of only three Glaser ovens left in operation. Originally heated by wood, a diesel warmer heats the brick oven for two hours a day, leaving the brick at a constant 400-degree cooking temperature, 24 hours a day. In 1917, a fire destroyed the bakery and home above, but left the oven unscathed, allowing the present structure to be rebuilt around its heart.
“The bakery is a working museum,” says manager Teresa Ecklund. “The baking implements are antiques, giving an old-time feel to each day’s creations.” The meat slicer is 86 years old, run by ball-bearings. Large 15-foot wooden paddles hang overhead to assist passing the baked goods in and out of the 15x10-foot oven. The original weighted scale is used daily, not replaced by its digital cousin.
Overhead, the baker’s quarters await restoration, below is a basement which once led to a maze of tunnels beneath the city. The side street of Inez is named after the niece of Paul Brunello, owner and baker in 1930.
Flavorful loaves of sweet French, sun-dried tomato and basil, jalapeno cheese and cinnamon breads lay in silent regiments on the shelves. Trays of baked goods twist their way to local restaurants and stores that distribute the creations to homes throughout the area. In the business front, espressos, Italian sodas, and sandwiches layered between fresh made Panini are served until 2 pm.
Michelon, the superintendent of four area elementary schools, has long ties to Weed, his Italian grandfather arriving in 1925. This relative was the starter. Just as generations of sourdough loaves come from a common batch, the Michelons have joined the generations of bakers who have made the Weed Bakery rise above the rest.