Restaurants can support local organic farmers by buying and preparing their delicious produce, but for bakeries it’s harder to find the direct connection. That’s why Erin Lampel, owner of the popular Companion Bakeshop in Santa Cruz, is inventing new ways to link her business with the ag community, such as using locally grown grains as much as possible, partnering with Pie Ranch educational farm in Pescadero, and creating new experiences like their upcoming farm-to-hearth bread journey.
Lampel has always been interested in the agricultural side of things, but found herself up to her elbows in flour while on kitchen duty during the sustainable ag apprenticeship program at UCSC farm. She loved it. “The sourdough starter we still use at the bakery today was begun up there on campus,” she recalls. “So it’s a real Santa Cruz starter.”
Behind the Pie
After graduation she worked at a couple of local organic farms, then in 2007 started baking baking pies for Pie Ranch to sell at their farm stand in Pescadero. She baked 15 to 20 pies a week using fresh fruit fillings grown on the ranch and whole wheat flour made from wheat grown and milled at Pie Ranch—named for the pie-shaped plot of land it occupies near the northern border of Santa Cruz County.
Over the years Lampel’s truly local pies have gained a dedicated following and now, as they gear up for the busy summer season, Companion staffers bake 270 pies a week for sale at Pie Ranch. They come in yummy flavors like apple, pumpkin, strawberry-rhubarb, lemon buttermilk and sticky walnut—using an heirloom California recipe from Lampel’s mother. Sales go to support Pie Ranch, a nonprofit organization that “cultivates a healthy and just food system from seed to table through food education, farmer training and regional partnership.”
“I’ve seen it grow and I’m really proud to be involved with what Pie Ranch is doing,” she says.
Through Pie Ranch, Lampel got her first taste of baking with artisanal milled wheat. “It’s exciting and really different,” she says. “Milling is done in small batches on an artisanal stone mill imported from Germany, so it’s a little coarser than commercially milled flour, but it has a great flavor.”
Last year Companion debuted its first “Local Loaf” using organic Sonora Wheat grown by Ryan Roseman at Coke Ranch in Aromas. The bread was a big hit and the bakery quickly used up all the available flour. Now Lampel is anxiously awaiting a new crop of wheat and the harvest from a new plot of rye that Roseman has planted.
“We sell out of local loaves as soon as we have them, so we know demand is there,” she says, explaining that there are challenges to growing grain in a humid climate like we have on the Central Coast. But Roseman and researchers up at UCSC are rediscovering long-forgotten heirloom strains that are better suited for our climate.
“The grain goes straight from the field to the mill to us, so we know the whole process and know there’s no possible contamination from processing or bad storage,” she says.
Companion specializes in sourdough breads made with organic, stoneground whole wheat and rye. Lampel believes her authentic Santa Cruz starter makes a more wholesome product: “Sourdough is a natural ferment and gives a great taste, but it also enables us to sub out commercial yeast—which is a processed product—and anytime you can do that, it’s more natural.”
Farm to hearth
For budding bakers and people simply interested in experiencing the whole process first hand, Companion is launching a day-long “Farm to Hearth Bread Journey.” The first class will take place on May 3rd in partnership with the UCSC recreation program. Students will visit a local farm where wheat is grown and milled, then make their way back to Santa Cruz to visit a few local bakeries. The day will end at Companion Bakeshop with an overview of artisanal bread-making, hands-on practice and eating.
If all goes well, the “Bread Journey” experience will be repeated for the general public. Other classes on sourdough baking and pastry craft are offered twice a month at the bakery, including Lampel’s famed “Pie Lab” class held just ahead of the holiday season in November.
Companion Bakeshop got its start supplying bread for CSA shares and is still available in the weekly Live Earth Farm and Blue House Farm CSA boxes. Underscoring its commitment to local farming, Companion’s Mission St. bakery/café is a pick up place for six different CSAs, including Pescadero’s new-this-year Fifth Crow Farm.
“It’s a real neighborhood bakery in every sense of the word. People come on foot and on bicycle and like to sit and read the paper at our big communal table,” says Lampel. “It’s been way busier than we ever thought it would be when we opened two and a half years ago.” An exclusive contract to serve San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee, along with the bread and pastries, helps draw the crowds.
The other pillar of their business—which has now grown to 22 employees—is participation in local farmers’ markets. They are at four markets run by Santa Cruz Farmers Markets: Downtown, Westside, Live Oak, and Scotts Valley. After six years on the waiting list, they are debuting in mid-April at Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets’ Cabrillo College Market and the Monterey Peninsula College Market.
The Cabrillo and MPC markets will feature new line of Companion Bakeshop gluten-free pastries, including brownies, almond cake, almond biscotti, almond buckwheat cake and buckwheat scones. “We developed them due to demand. But instead of looking for gluten substitutes, I try to stick with the most natural ingredients possible,” says Lampel, confiding: “I really like flour and I love butter and I especially love using local, whole grains.”
Companion Bakeshop – 2341 Mission St. Santa Cruz – 831.252.2253
Open Tu 7am-8pm, W-F 7am-4pm, Sa-Su 8am-3pm.