Hours before the sun ever rises, Colleen Lewis and her son, Jared, head from Clements to The Dancing Fox Bakery in Downtown Lodi. The fire of the Llopis oven is fed for the day ahead.
Dough that has been rising overnight is removed from the walk-in cooler. Pastry chefs are already busy pulling cookies and other sweet treats from the ovens in the kitchen. As the sunlight inches across the floor, the staff clocks in, brews coffee and prepares for the morning service.
“The slow moments of the morning are the most lovely moments of the day because it is about the slow process of bread,” says Lewis.
She gets to work mixing flour, water and leavening together in-between batches.
“The ingredients are so basic. It’s like winemaking. It’s been with Western civilization from its beginnings. In ancient cultures, the Greeks and Romans were putting together flour, water, and their own natural leavening. Salt found its way in, in a matter of time. The basic elements – they’ve been with us from antiquity,” she says.
Already, Lewis is elbow deep in dough as she scrapes the sides of her mixer, an import from Holland. While she is in the kitchen, Jared Lewis is in the front, loading loaves into the wood fire oven — sourdough, multi-grain, ciabatta and baguettes. He has been baking for two years.
“It’s just fun to be able to create something and to see it from start to finish. To be able to mill the flour, to shape it, to see it rise and to see the final product is great,” Jared Lewis says.
“We are very, very hands on. It’s repetitive but yet it’s different all the time,” Colleen Lewis says. “It is very much a continuous process. The oven is always on. How much wood to add at what time, how much water to add to it for steam — we know the process. We add more wood — we get it hot and we let it stay at a certain temperature overnight. We add wood in the morning just to keep it consistent. The oven has it cycles. Bread has its cycles too.”
An early love for bread
Colleen has been making bread since she learned in her home economics class at the age of 15. She was so smitten by the process that she went home to teach her mother. Since then, she hasn’t stopped. This is her second career.
“It’s been a passion of mine. I love bread. It’s just something I love to make, love to eat, love to share with others, love to teach people how to how to make,” she says. “What I am personally doing here is very much an outgrowth of my entire bread-making experience and my life.”
Ask the bakers what their favorite bread is, and every day you’ll get a different answer.
“I love whole grains but I love baguettes and ciabatta. They have their own individual character. Sometimes you want something that is very healthy and hearty and sometimes just light and fun. So it’s just like anything in life I suppose,” she says with laughter.
Bakers in the kitchen
Jared Lewis flings small clouds of flour onto the wooden paddle and loads it with two or three loaves. With a sharp razor, he gracefully skims across the tops of the dough, gently scoring the loaves to allow the bread to expand. With one hand, he steers the oven to an open spot and with the other hand, Jared unloads the paddle quickly. This is repeated dozens of times during the day.
In the kitchen, with fast, soft hands, Colleen is shaping the dough into perfect rounds, wetting the top and attaching seeds to the multi-grain loaves. Across the way, Katia Vena is weighing and shaping balls of dough for the crusts of the restaurant’s pizzas. Vena is from Italy and been working in the bakery for a year. Her father is a baker in her home country. English is her third language and her favorite thing to bake are puffs.
The faces of the fox
Patrons slowly makes their way into the dining room to get their coffee and bread fix as the aroma of bread warmly envelops each person. Ann Ioppini, of Lodi, enjoys a cranberry scone and coffee at the Dancing Fox. A group of students from Vinewood Elementary stroll in and are treated to a tour of the bakery. Orders are called in. Colleen answers the phone. As a small business owner, she wears many hats. But it is obvious which hat is her favorite.
Mother of flour and water
She affectionately calls her leavening agent, “Mother.” It is made from their own culture, cultivated from the yeast off the skins of Lodi wine grapes.
“We have a natural sourdough culture which we call our ‘Mother.’ It’s funny. Last summer I was in San Francisco for a little baking class. I left all these notes, ‘Feed my mother.’ I was referring to my natural culture. If I ever go, I am always calling, ‘Did you feed my mother? Did you feed the mother?’” Mother is fed two times a day, freshened with flour and water consistently.
The lengthy old-world style of fermentation can take up to 20 hours. This process allows time to develop a more complex flavor. “It’s a slower process, but we love the flavor of it. It does very well for us.”
Day old bread is taken to local charities. One of the chefs, Jeff, will give it to people on the street.
“From antiquity, bread is a shard food. It’s meant to be enjoyed with wine or other foods. Or by itself. It is a very social food. It is breaking bread. It is very rewarding,” Collen Lewis says.
Contact News-Sentinel photographer Jennifer M. Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org.