Bread From The Mist – Bootjack Woodfired Bakery, Mill Valley, CA
Author & Photographer: Wendy Louise Nog
When I was a child, the fathers around me were lumberjacks. They were men of the woods, heading out the door before sunrise to be enveloped by the sub-zero temperatures of northern Minnesota. Their boots were thick leather and steel-toed, solid enough to withstand a chainsaw blade. Lumber work is a dangerous job, one of the most dangerous in the world. When you are doing sustainable forestry work, that danger is magnified because you are working between trees. The body of a lumberjack is made of solid iron. Their hands are calloused as tree bark. Four children can hang from one arm while he lifts them into the air to take a sip of his coffee without spilling a drop. Lumberjacks also need a lot of fuel. I have vivid memories of my mother converting an entire loaf of bread into a stack of sandwiches for my dad’s lunch. She also prepared a tall thermos of strong hot coffee made cowboy style, the grounds poured into the top of a tall narrow pot of water. The pot is brought to a boil so that the grounds are immersed in water and then slowly sink, leaving behind trails of rich flavor as gravity pulls them downward through the delicious water that we pumped right out of the ground.
I grew up in the woods surrounded by trees, with a prairie mother whose arms were strong from the kneading of dough that she formed into bread, rolls, cinnamon buns, donuts, and many other comfort foods that kept us full and content. Her wooden bread mixing spoon is one of my treasures. Bread feels like home.
Editor’s Note: As always, much is left to discover after reading this article. We share only enough to entice you to visit. We also are not writing a review, there are enough critics out there. Instead we are celebrating this place that we have chosen because of its uniqueness and special place in our foodie hearts.
The village of Mill Valley, California, located just a few minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County had its beginnings in lumber, and is named after the mill that cut boards that were used to build, among other things, the Presidio in San Francisco. Now looking back, it literally makes you weep to think of the enormous redwood trees cut down, and the original inhabitants now gone. If you can set that aside, like we often have to do with the repercussions of human achievement, what remains is a beautiful valley surrounded by enormous trees under the protection of a giant, sleeping ancient woman, the spirit of Mount Tamalpais, named by the Miwoks who once inhabited this land. Its history, location and geography make Mill Valley possibly the most desirable place to live on the planet.
Logging, Farming, Music, Children
Many of the felled trees became the framework for houses, fences and stairways built throughout the town, which is a maze of steps, meandering pathways, creeks, and impossibly narrow roads that explore the east side of the mountain. The west side of the mountain is preserved, thanks to John Muir, for wildlife, trees, and those who head out onto the hundreds of miles of trails. The lumber mill was finally silent, and at the turn of the century the coastal inlets created by streams running through Mill Valley to the tidal marshes of the San Francisco Bay became inhabited by a mixture of local farmers, city folks visiting their weekend homes, and later, waves of musicians, artists, and spiritual seekers from around the world. Most recently parents seeking a utopia for their children have created a wonderland of hidden playgrounds, tree swings from impossibly high branches, and endless places to explore. Homes have been built wherever footing can be found, and even in steep ravines, where a house requires two story stilts to reach the roadway and the garage is the top floor. The shady air is fragrant year round with the aroma of bay leaves, moisture and moss arising from fog and seasonal creeks, and from the redwoods, which create their own weather.
Centuries Old Valley Inhabitants
The geography surrounding a town creates a particular feeling. Beach towns surf on the sandy shores giving the feeling of openness, movement, and of shifting sands. Desert towns have their own sense of defiance against the heat, a madness that has settled in as a result of life existing where it should not. Mountain villages are beautiful in part because their very existence is proof of our unwillingness to live in the safety of the plains, but instead settle in precariously high up places simply for the view.
The shady side of the valleys of the Northern California coast have a feeling of mystery, as this is where the giant redwood and sequoia trees have chosen as home. It is said that the original inhabitants did not live within the redwoods. We do not know why. It is impossible to explain what it feels like to stand beneath living organisms that are more than a thousand years old. As we learn more about the complex system that sustains a forest, scientists are realizing that the trees know we are here. They sense the carbon dioxide that we exhale, the vibration of our footsteps and the warmth of our bodies. Our lives are so short in comparison to theirs, our mass so inconsequential. Their indifference to us is breathtaking. This certainly adds to the experience of holding a tiny cup of coffee, and watching the steam curl up against the backdrop of enormous tree trunks and outstretched branches that swoop down to capture fog that collects and drips downward toward the ground to quench the thirst of the trees’ massive root structure.
Fog, Layers, and Cashmere Socks
Some places make you think of white linen and sun hats, or heels and purses and taxicabs. The town of Mill Valley makes you think about layers, and cashmere socks, craftsmen whittling wood into beautiful furniture or wooden shingles. You think about rich cheeses, olives, and jams and bread packed into a backpack, with a flask in the side pocket. You think of day hikes, beautiful vistas, and dark bottles of red wine waiting for you at home: frosty mornings, waves of fog in the afternoon, and golden sunsets. All four seasons can greet you in the span of one day. Mill Valley is a destination, but it is also a home-town, a meeting place, and a village of artisan shops and family-owned restaurants. The bounty of the region is delivered from the vineyards and farms in the north, the orchards in the east, and from the fishermen who brave the ocean daily to cast their lines or haul in their crab traps. Coastal oysters and rich cheeses are brought over the mountain from West Marin, and a vast array of organic fruits and vegetables, dates and preserves come over the Golden Gate Bridge from the coastal and central valleys in the south.
Places like Mill Valley take on a timelessness, with the original buildings preserved for historical sentiment, and the geography requiring a routine of movement through life that remains the same even after 200 years. It remains the same that is, until something happens that changes everything. In 2020, the corona virus began a destructive march around the planet. The centers of community were closed, or made inaccessible. Meeting places have been out of reach. Movement paused.
The pandemic has taken many things away. Traditions, loved ones, treasured businesses, and a sense of time. We search for answers, wait, and hope that we or someone we love is not next.
With any tragedy, because the human spirit will not give up, we always find a way forward. There are gifts in loss. For the town of Mill Valley, the gift of the pandemic is a bakery.
The Green Gulch Watershed
Four years prior to the writing of this article, at Green Gulch, a tiny organic farm located inside of the San Francisco Zen Center on the foggy coast of Marin County, a small container of sourdough bread starter was separated from its mother, and placed in the hands of Cameron Esaryk by resident baker, Mick Sopko. The starter was begun in the traditional way, with water, flour, and the surrounding air. Green Gulch is a watershed, an underground river of fresh water that runs through the headlands until it spills out over the ground’s surface and forms Redwood Creek, which threads its way out to the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach.
A newspaper office in 1905, many businesses have passed through. Copyright Mill Valley Historical Society
Cameron tended this starter for four years as he baked his way around the Bay Area. Back at Green Gulch, bread was still being made for local restaurateur Ged Robertson’s Shoreline Cafe and new restaurant, Watershed.
As the pandemic shuttered doors, and with a consolidation of resources being necessary, Ged made the difficult decision to close his recently reimagined woodfired pizza restaurant at 17 Madrona in Mill Valley. A beautiful wood fired baking oven sat cold and unused. The pandemic dragged on. One day Chef Kyle Swain, local food hero & collaborator of all things Ged asked Cameron, “wouldn’t it be cool if we turned Bootjack Woodfired into a bakery?” The idea was born, and after four years of travel, the wandering Green Gulch sourdough starter found a home.
Cameron’s entry into bread baking was unexpected, as he had moved to Green Gulch from Vancouver Island to meditate. For those of you who, like me, find Zen and meditation to be mysteriously out of reach conceptually, we can still be in awe of those who embrace the quiet, to listen to the sounds of the wind and of the earth breathing. Most of the residents at Green Gulch follow an unwavering schedule of pre-dawn ceremonies, guided by the meditative rituals of Buddhist practice, seasonal farming, preparing food, and stewardship of the watershed. All at Green Gulch is not so predictable however. The on-site bakery is a bit of wild, not following the seasons, or the path to enlightenment. Instead, the bakery follows the life cycle and appetite of wild microscopic yeast and bacteria. After adapting to his new life at the Zen center, a fellow resident and friend suggested that Cameron try an entrepreneurship in the bakery. The future meditated, and waited patiently.
Copyright – The Collector
The Oldest Printed Recipe
The oldest recipe in the world is for bread. Egyptian hieroglyphs explain visually how to grow and harvest the grain, pound it into flour, set it out to leven, and then bake the dough in a fire heated oven. When the pandemic hit, it is not surprising that somehow naturally we all thought back to our oldest most basic food, to expose ourselves to fermentation and bacteria which our bodies use as part of our immune system. We had the urge to start baking fermented sourdough bread.
A sourdough starter can be described simply as wild living yeast and bacteria from the surrounding air that has collected in a mixture of flour and water because it loves to eat the grain. They are nurtured into a thriving colony of bubbly, aromatic dough. The wild yeast converts the starch in the flour into sugar, and then into alcohol, and exhales carbon dioxide, which creates the bubbles that you see in bread. The bacteria create lactic acid, which is what creates the sour taste, and which also prevents the growth of unwanted bacteria. Once baked, the yeast and bacteria end their life cycle, and you have a delicious loaf of flavorful bread. A part of the dough is always set aside, to continue the life of the mother starter.
These are the basic principles of sourdough bread. The nuances in nurturing a starter into a loaf then, can vary by baker, and at every single step there is an opportunity for heartbreak or success. Cameron says, “…it is a relationship with the starter, every day is a negotiation.” The second time that I stopped in to pick up my week’s supply of levain, the shelves were empty. A great tragedy had befallen the bread. The oven had been just slightly too hot and the bread had burned. Heartbreak.
Alan Scott Woodfired Oven
The woodfired oven at Bootjack is heated to a very high temperature, and then the temperature slowly falls. This is yet another factor to be considered in the making of bread at Bootjack. The oven was designed by the world famous wood fired bread oven designer Alan Scott, who is no longer living but was at the time of the build, and it was constructed by Malcom Chase, his protege. Alan was a trained blacksmith from Australia who settled in Point Reyes Station. Inspired by being asked to create handles for a brick oven, he used his knowledge of heat and materials to revive hundreds year old brick oven designs, and refined them so that restaurants and even back yard aficionados could have a brick bread baking oven. Scott ovens are known for producing bread that is moist and chewy on the inside, with a light crispy crust on the outside, and this oven does not disappoint.
Single Level Oven
An industrial bread oven has ten or even twenty rotating racks inside of a giant cavernous space. The Bootjack oven is only one level. They can bake just 50-60 loaves each day. The loaves are very large, nearly twice the size of ordinary loaves. Cameron said that he chose to create large loaves for several reasons, but mainly to save space inside of the oven. If you visit when he is there, you may see him gently removing puffy balls of dough out of fabric lined baskets, and placing them on a pizza sized “peel” which is a pizza sized wooden spatula that has an incredibly long handle, and that is used to move the bread to and from the back of the oven.
The breads and pastries at Bootjack are not the light flaky delicacies of Southern Europe that instantly turn into sugar after you eat them. Bootjack breads and pastries are hearty, like those you would find in the mountains of Switzerland, the German countryside, or a lumberjack’s lunch box. They are fuel packed for a slow burn, made with whole grains such as rye, whole wheat and miche. One slice of toasted rye bread topped with fresh tomato salted and peppered is a nutritious meal that will satiate your appetite for hours. My favorite discovery was their olive oil tea cake. There is something about whole grains, olive oil, and sweetness that feels like self-care. The recipe was provided by Erin Esaryk, Cameron’s better half. She happens to be skilled at pastries as well. A dark roasted Four Barrel Coffee is available for take-out, and it is impossible to choose between the glazed caramel rolls, the pear, cinnamon scones, or the savory goat cheese and chard, or the other daily variations, all displayed on racks for you to view. Pastry Chef Justine Brown has recently joined the team, and you can be sure that there are many more delicious pastries on their way.
We are all searching for those moments of simplicity that make us feel alive and in wonder of our senses. There are moments that cause us to pause, and to be amazed that somehow all events in our lives led us to being here at this moment. The quest for a loaf of sourdough bread that brings you to the doorway of Bootjack, is one that brings you to the intersection of an ancient starter recipe, brought to life in a coastal a fog filled watershed, baked in an oven based on hundred year old designs revived by an Australian transplant blacksmith, coaxed into loaves by a peaceful Buddhist, all in the cozy confines of a 140 year old shop resting on a sloping street of a small village in a valley of giant trees.
Holding a warm morning bun in one hand, and a hot cup of coffee in the other while strolling through the nearby Old Mill Park, gazing up at enormous trees, and listening to water rushing down the creek is one of those experiences that allows you to believe for a moment, that you must have made at least one good decision somewhere.
If you arrive at opening time at Bootjack Wood Fired the bread will still be hot, and as you hug one of the giant loaves while carrying it to your vehicle, it will warm your chest against the chilly misty air of a foggy Mill Valley morning.
We Were There!
Wendy Louise Nog, Stephanie G.
Photography By Wendy Louise Nog
Mick Sopko – Green Gulch Baker
Cameron Esaryk – Baker
Erin Esaryk – Pastry Chef
Ged Robertson – Restaurateur
Green Gulch Farm
San Francisco Zen Center
Alan Scott Woodfired Ovens
Malcom Chase – Craftsman & Carpenter
Ged Robertson – Restaurateur
Kyle Swain – Chef
Mick Sopko – Green Gulch Baker
Cameron Esaryk – Baker
Erin Esaryk – Pastry Chef
Justine Brown – Pastry Chef
Four Barrel Coffee