In a tiny village in central France where Fiona Strouts' parents now live, the arrival of the baker and his cargo of homemade bread tends to infuse the air with excitement, Strouts said.
The villagers place their orders with the baker the night before and the loaves are baked through the night in a wood-fired oven. After the baker delivers the bread the next day and the market closes, they celebrate the baker's art with wine at the baker's house, she said.
Baking bread is an art and it is a science, said Strouts, and she would know. In addition to recently taking her post as the artisanal bread baker in residence at the Portola Valley farmers' market on Thursday afternoons, Strouts is a post doctoral fellow in microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Strouts is 34, a native of Lyons, France. Growing up, she lived in both France and England, and for a while near Copenhagen. She attended junior high school in Los Altos, and has lived in Portola Valley for four and a half years.
She has run a triathlon and was a bicycle racer, last racing in 2014, she said.
Strouts' debut at the farmers' market was Nov. 17. Her initial plans include bringing around 50 loaves to the market each week in her transport of choice: a red Citroen Mehari, a practical vehicle and recognizable to the extent that it resembles a Volkswagen Thing.
Her breads are made from California-grown wheat that she grinds herself with a stone mill outside her front door. California was once a "huge wheat-growing state" and would ship wheat to England, she said.
All her breads are sourdoughs and naturally leavened using yeast from the environment. Her current bread menu includes Sonora field blend, sprouted Ethiopian blue tinge, dark chocolate sourdough, walnut and sprouted lentil-rye.
(Eating a sprouted lentil is a transforming experience for reluctant fans of lentils. The taste goes from something like eating a dusty kernel of grain to that of a pea not long out of the pod. Sprouted lentils are moist, sweet like a pea and slightly crunchy -- like a pea. This reporter was doing double takes to remind himself that he was eating lentil sprouts and not pea sprouts.)
Strouts has been baking for about eight years, she said, and first learned from a London housemate. She did take one class at the San Francisco Baking Institute, mainly to learn how to scale up her production, she said.
The previous bread baker for the Portola Valley farmers' market, her friend Phil Reilly, focused less on local grains and more on ancient grains such as quinoa and kamut, Strouts said.
"Local grains tend to be harder to bake bread with," she said, "usually lower protein and less predictable year-to-year as grown on relatively small farms, which makes them more challenging and fun to work with."
Science and bread
Strouts has a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Bristol in England, and a master's degree in epidemiology and doctorate in infectious diseases from Imperial College London, she said. At Stanford's lab, she and her colleagues are trying to detect foreign microbes in human blood to answer a question not yet answered: "What does health look like?"
One potential avenue is examining blood before and after teeth flossing, which disturbs bacteria in the mouth. She and her colleagues sequence the DNA of everything present in the blood sample, 99.9 percent of which will be human, and look for the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.
Microbes are common residents of the human digestive tract, where they are willing and able participants in the digestion of coarse stone-milled flour, a substance that provides an ample supply of microbial fuel, she said in an email. There's also a tie-in to what she is doing in the lab to understand the human microbiome, she said.
Coarse flour adds fiber, something people in Western cultures have less of in their diets. Less fiber combined with a less diverse microbial community in their guts, when compared to people in more traditional cultures, has "negative implications" for Westerners' overall health, she said.
"With bread, I'm trying to create something delicious and healthy, and maybe even change people's perception of brown bread," she said. Bringing homemade bread to a farmers' market also advances another of her objectives: cultivating and promoting the idea of getting together and creating a community, she said.
Asked for a bit of advice to would-be bakers of their own bread, Strouts said she's made a lot of inadvertent pizzas -- bread that didn't rise in the oven. "Even if you're disappointed in how it looks, it's still going to taste pretty good, she said. "Everything that sort of turns out bad, it's a learning experience. I think you learn a lot more when things don't work out than when they do."
At some point, she said, she shut all her recipe books. "When I made that switch, that's when things started to work," she said.
Fiona Strouts sells baked goods from her bread workshop, or L'atelier du Pain, at the Portola Valley farmers' market on Thursdays at 765 Portola Road. The market's winter hours are 2 to 5 p.m. L'Atelier du Pain Facebook page.